It was an opening day win for Manchester United on Saturday and it was a win in style. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men scored five against Leeds United in a dominant performance at Old Trafford.
With Bruno Fernandes securing his first hat-trick for the club and Paul Pogba registering an incredible four assists in just 73 minutes, you’d assume that a tactical analysis would be focusing on one of them, but this will instead focus on Mason Greenwood, who was playing through the middle for United in this fixture.
The teenager got his chance as the number nine, with Edinson Cavani in quarantine, and he had a brilliant match. Not only did he score a cracking goal to put United 2-1 up, but his all-round play was outstanding and there were some promising signs to show his progression to be the ideal striker that Solskjær wants.
His role in the goals
With Leeds playing their usual pressing/man-marking system out of possession, United needed to be slick and smart with how they attacked and transitioned. They also needed their number nine to drag the Leeds defenders around and help create space for himself and also his fellow attackers. Greenwood did this perfectly for United’s first, second, third and fifth goals – having a role to play in all of them. Let’s look at each of those goals and Greenwood’s involvement in each of them.
For the opening goal, it was a great move which saw Scott McTominay find Pogba in an advanced area, who then played a great pass into Bruno, who made a run beyond the Leeds backline and then finished well. When the pass into Pogba is made, we see Greenwood peal away towards the ball – he drags Pascal Struijk with him. This creates a large space between the two Leeds centre-backs and, in turn, space for Bruno to run into and receive.
It was smart movement from Greenwood to create the space for Bruno to run into. You can see the goal and Mason’s movement below.
To put United back into the lead, Greenwood scored his first goal of the season and it was arguably the best moment of the game. The pass, the run, the finish and the celebration were all perfect — let’s look into it.
With Luke Shaw on the ball, he initially wanted to play into Pogba, but the Frenchman was being tightly marked by Raphinha. Greenwood then made a run towards the left; with his run he was able to drag both Raphinha and Struijk towards him. This did two things:
- Gave Pogba the space to receive in the centre and pick his pass.
- Created a large space in between the two Leeds centre-backs.
Then, after Pogba received the ball from Shaw, Greenwood’s curved his run in behind the defence and Pogba played a beautiful pass into the space that the teenager was parading into. He then had the power and pace to get beyond Struijk and then finished brilliantly into the bottom corner. We all know that Mason can finish like that though, it was in fact the run to create space for himself and Pogba, as well as the power to bypass the defender when he did receive the ball which was more impressive. The goal and his movement is shown below.
Yet again, Greenwood had a role in this goal even though he didn’t touch the ball in the move. Similar to the first goal, his movement created space for Bruno to run into and Pogba to subsequently find the Portuguese with a pass.
After Fred played into Pogba, who then turned to face goal, Greenwood makes a run from right to left towards the box. With this movement, Lee Cooper steps across towards the teenager. Then, the space between Cooper and Stuart Dallas is enlarged, meaning that there is space for Pogba to slide Bruno in behind. Also note Greenwood halting his run in the box so that he’s left free to receive the ball (Bruno had other ideas though).
Yep, Fred scored in this game and Greenwood was vital in the goal. In the early build-up to the goal, Bruno receives the ball in the middle and Greenwood makes a good run into depth, to attempt to receive in behind. He doesn’t get the ball but then makes himself available to receive the ball to feet. McTominay plays the pass to Greenwood and he drops slightly to receive which makes Luke Ayling follow him (an example of Greenwood’s gravity), then he turns and plays into the space which he created to Pogba, who made a good run and then finds Fred in the middle. It was good use of his own gravity from Greenwood as he recognised Ayling step out of his defensive zone to pressure him and slid the ball into said zone.
There is similarities between all of these goals and Greenwood’s involvement in them – even the one that he scored. We are used to seeing Greenwood score goals due to his brilliant finishing, but his role in moving the Leeds backline to help benefit his teammates was good to see.
While it was of course beneficial to be against a Leeds side that go man-to-man against you, Greenwood still showed brilliant movement off the ball throughout.
Greenwood’s around (and in) the box movement
It wasn’t just for the goals, but Greenwood made some impressive runs throughout the game both into space in the final third and into the box. Especially in regards to his box movement, there was a lot of intensity in his movement and this is definitely something which he has seemed to improve on over the last six months.
There was multiple occasions when United would attack where Greenwood would make impressive runs into the box. He had good intensity and lost his man through changing direction of his run. The example below was just two minutes into the game and even though he didn’t receive the ball, his first movement towards the back post and then the dart towards the front allowed him to get ahead of his marker.
Here’s another good example of Greenwood’s box movement. With Bruno progressing on the right, Greenwood yet again starts his run towards the front post and then darts towards the back, while the ball isn’t played it was another good showing of box movement and intensity. After that, Greenwood remains on the blindside of the Leeds defender, he then makes a great movement as soon as he’s out of the defender’s vision, which gives him the advantage to win the header if it was towards him – proper Edinson Cavani movement.
Here is a great chance that almost fell to Greenwood after an impressive run. He starts his run from the left and comes across the defender with power and intensity; he attacks the space between the two centre-backs very well and is inches away from Bruno Fernandes’ cross. He timed the run close to perfection, staying just onside when the ball was played.
It was not only aggressive box movement which Greenwood showcased in the game, he also was able to find space through holding a run or looking to receive a cutback. It was good to see a variety of box movement from him in the match.
Here are two different examples of him looking to receive the ball to his feet rather than running beyond the backline. The first, below, he makes a smart movement for a cutback however is marshalled pretty well and doesn’t receive.
In the second clip, Greenwood in the one who starts the attack with a brilliant drive towards the box. He then finds Pogba and holds his run on the edge of the box. This gives him space and his quick shift to his left gives him a great space to receive a pass from Daniel James, but the winger choses to shoot instead.
All round striker play
This was always going to be tough as the starting striker against Leeds, with constant pressure on him the striker would have a responsibility to drop to receive and then be able to hold onto the ball, to also receive against the defensive line, to run the channels/stretch the defence and ultimately link the play well while dragging the opposition backline around. Greenwood did all of this well.
The teenager managed to have 46 touches of the ball and complete 22 passes (88% accuracy) throughout the match. He was regularly involved and had good back to goal play, often looking to receive to feet and then helping progression with a quick pass to a player making a third man run or someone in space.
Here are two examples where Greenwood moved into a deeper area to receive the ball with his back to goal and is able to find the third man run to Fred on both occasions. It was vital for him to be good on the ball and not wasteful as a striker against this Leeds side and he did did so very well.
Greenwood was tidy in possession but he also was one of the most active players on the pitch, tracking back and making tackles or holding positions for his teammates or stretching the opposition line. It was another example of his more selflessness play that he’s added to his game over the last year.
Below, you can see Greenwood make a good run into depth so Victor Lindelöf can play the long pass and his battling allows United to get the ball in an advanced area and push the Leeds backline towards their own box – it ends with a chance for McTominay all because Greenwood stretched the Leeds backline.
Greenwood also showed his ability to link play in the final third and created a great opportunity for James, as well as creating one for Pogba (which will be looked at in the next section). While Greenwood showed tendencies to stretch the backline and burst into advanced areas, he also showed that he can drop into space, get the ball and then play the killer pass or retain possession well – it was the former for this James chance below.
On the ball play
The two previous sections were areas where the teenager has improved a lot, but there has never been a question about his on-ball ability. Yet, Greenwood is becoming more and more progressive and direct when he plays now. He attempted nine dribbles in the match and completed five, showing how active he was at driving forward. He has also shown progressive tendencies in his passing.
His chance created for Pogba – which really should’ve been an assist – was a perfect example of his ability to drive with the ball but also shows the quality where he can steady himself and play the perfect pass. With the ball in the middle, Greenwood’s anticipation is impressive to nip in and get the ball and then the piece of skill to get past the first man is brilliant and something that isn’t surprising from the youngster.
He continues to drive through the middle with force and purpose. The pass to Pogba is the right pass to play and he plays it perfectly so Pogba doesn’t even have to break stride. It was a great run and pass and an example of how Greenwood has begun to operate – direct play when the space is there to be exploited (as it usually is against Leeds).
Added to his driving with the ball, Greenwood also played a few impressive passes which he might not have made this time last year. The tweet below shows one where Greenwood is on the right side and can easily play back to a defender but instead disguises a pass into Bruno Fernandes who then looks to make a combination with Pogba to enter the box. It was a clear example of Greenwood’s changing tendencies with the ball at his feet and also his confidence to play the pass.
Of course, a game against Leeds is like no other game, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side being quite the anomaly to face in the Premier League. However, there are still clear improvements being made in Greenwood’s game. His physique is much improved and that added power helped him to score his goal. After the match Solskjær told the media: “The way he burst away for that second goal. That’s a man compared to a boy that was in the first-team two years ago.”
With Edinson Cavani back training on Tuesday, it’s likely that Greenwood will have a lot of minutes on the right side through the season. Yet, with Cavani at 34 years of age, there will be opportunities for the 19-year-old through the middle and from his performance against Leeds, he deserves the chance.