Barely an hour had passed since Mason Greenwood’s first senior goal for Manchester United. The new chant dedicated to the club’s youngest-ever European goalscorer could still be heard on the concourses around Old Trafford. And so, buoyed by a 1-0 victory over the champions of Kazakhstan, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came out in defence of the most contentious and perhaps the most courageous decision he has made since his appointment.
Romelu Lukaku left last month and did so with Solskjaer’s blessing, despite there being only a matter of hours before the close of the transfer window and United having next to no hope of signing a replacement. The club’s top scorer over the past two years was leaving and there was no natural centre-forward waiting to step into his place. In fact, there was only a 17-year-old novice with four appearances to his name, who suddenly found he was first reserve.
“For me it was the right decision, for the club and for him,” Solskjaer declared on Thursday night, having watched that same 17-year-old guide his lacklustre side to a winning start in the Europa League. Astana looked disciplined and well-organised enough to earn a point until Greenwood’s 73rd-minute intervention rescued United from an ignominious stalemate.
“He is going to be important for us this season,” the United manager added. “He’s not played a lot so far, but he’ll get his minutes. He’ll grow and develop. Get him inside the box, you know something’s going to happen. He can go inside, he can go outside. It’s natural for him to play football, natural for him to score goals, to be in and around the box. He’s shown glimpses today of what he can become.”
It was an excellent goal, in fairness. After collecting the ball wide, Greenwood shuffles right to draw the defender towards him, cuts back onto his left foot to create space then slides a low finish between the visiting goalkeeper’s legs. This was dexterity and dynamism that Old Trafford has rarely been treated to in recent years. But one goal does not make a United player.
Solskjaer’s gamble with Greenwood will, in the end, be judged in two ways. Firstly, by sheer output. What did United’s attack lose by selling Lukaku – an established elite-level striker, but one limited a supporting role if he had stayed? If Lukaku would have scored 10 to 15 goals between now and the end of the season, can Greenwood make up that deficit from a comparable number of minutes?
Secondly, by Greenwood’s own development. If he does fall short of what Lukaku could be expected to return, is that an acceptable price to pay for nurturing a homegrown talent? Is it better to give gifted youngsters first-team experiences and opportunities to impress, rather than persist with older and more expensive players whose pay packet no longer reflects their importance?
It is too early to say definitively. It might be wise for Solskjaer to wait until Greenwood has played a few more games and scored a few more goals before declaring ‘I was right’, too. On the evidence of his side’s six games so far, there is plenty of toil to come in front of goal. United simply do not create enough in open play to break down stubborn opponents. Between now and May, there will be days when fans ask why a consistent 20-goal-a-season striker was not adequately replaced.
And yet, Greenwood’s goal on Thursday night was the first small but significant sign that Solskjaer is right to put his faith in youth. This is, after all, a club that has named an academy graduate in the match day squad for every game over the past 82 years, pre-dating the Second World War. There is a future first-team player among every batch of talented youngsters to pass through United’s academy. In Greenwood, Solskjaer may well have found the next one.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies