Sunday afternoon was evidence that for every swashbuckling 5-1 victory over Leeds United, Manchester United are still unable to shake these disjointed, sluggish, laboured displays against mid-table opposition.
Southampton were the benefactors on this occasion, as other than a sensational Paul Pogba, very few Red Devils impressed in a frustrating 1-1 draw on the south coast.
A major factor behind Man Utd’s drop off from the opening weekend was undoubtedly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s bizarre team selection and baffling in-game substitutions. There was still no place for Raphael Varane, Nemanja Matic started over Donny van de Beek, and Anthony Martial led the line, with Mason Greenwood pushed out wide.
The performance was as miserable as the team sheet sounds. The backline was error-ridden and all over the place, Matic was hooked far later than he should have been, and Martial dropped an absolute stinker as the team’s focal point.
The Frenchman looked lost, isolated and restricted. He failed to affect the game in any way, and once again appeared off the pace in a team that itself was no way near up to scratch. Damning indeed. He was withdrawn on the hour mark, adding extra question marks to the already hefty number of doubts over whether he’ll fulfil his potential.
The fact Monaco inserted a Ballon d’Or bonus into Martial’s sale is almost laughable six years on. Still, the 25-year-old’s exit from the game came only a couple of minutes after another teammate had stood up as the real centre forward.
Greenwood, clearly fed up of being marginalised on the touchline, stepped inside during one of Man Utd’s raids down the left flank, and demonstrated all the attacking instinct and nouse that Martial lacks.
While the former Monaco man hovered at the back post waiting for a chance to come his way, Greenwood made sure that the ball would arrive at his own feet. The teenager wandered into space and then came alive, demanding the ball and letting rip a first time shot that had just enough to beat Alex McCarthy.
He was perhaps a bit fortunate that the ball squirmed into the net, but if you don’t create those opportunities, you won’t even get the chance to miss them. It was that gut-call that told Greenwood to occupy the space just to the left of the penalty spot, and it was exactly where Pogba was waiting for a teammate to arrive.
The 19-year-old has that knack required for finding the net. Ex-footballers will tell you that he’s clearly gifted with a knowhow that perhaps can’t even be taught. Scoring goals is in his blood, and he will continue making runs into space until the ball falls into his path.
The statistics suggest he’s a born goalscorer, too. Opta revealed that Greenwood’s equaliser against Saints was his 19th Premier League goal as a teenager – a feat that only three other players have managed.
Michael Owen. Robbie Fowler. Wayne Rooney. Mason Greenwood. Not bad company to be in, eh?
On top of that, he’s become the fourth teenager to score in the first two games of the Premier League season, and the first to do so since Alan Smith for Leeds back in 2000. Another first, and the first in 21 years. The stats don’t lie – this boy is special.
Credit where it’s due, Solskjaer has done an excellent job in blooding Greenwood into the Man Utd first team and not rushing him, and the Norwegian is now reaping the rewards from the seeds he’s sewn.
But there’s no point in doing the hard work and nurturing the teenager’s talents if you’re then not prepared to let him flourish in his natural position. Greenwood has all the makings of a centre-forward, and an elite one, at that.
His pace, movement and intelligence all suggest he is the man needed to lead Man Utd’s line. It’s time for Solskjaer to put his faith in the forward and hand him his chance – he deserves it.