“With the signing of Cristiano we might give less playing time to a few.” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reflecting on the shifting pecking order at Old Trafford after Cristiano Ronaldo’s return. He was answering about Daniel James and, a couple of days after his valedictory display at Wolves, the winger was gone to Leeds.
One out, one in; problem solved? Not exactly. James always looked a back-up. Paul Pogba was crowbarred into the centre of midfield at Molineux, which left United more open and removed a player with five assists in two games from the left wing. Yet if he reverts to the role where he was creative, it means three of the front four roles in Solskjaer’s side are reserved for the superstars, for Ronaldo, Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
It leaves less playing time for others and one starting berth for Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood to contest. The younger pair present the most pertinent issues. Martial is out of form, Rashford injured, Cavani displaced as the preferred ageing penalty-box poacher. But Sancho was the summer’s flagship signing and the long-term target and Greenwood is the form finisher, the first teenager since Robbie Fowler to start the Premier League season with goals in the opening three games.
He is precocious and clinical. “The beauty of him is that he can go outside right foot and inside left foot, so it's hard for a defender,” Solskjaer reflected at Molineux. A decider there had certain similarities with his crisp strike against Leeds, except it came with his opposite foot.
Greenwood scored 10 goals from 20 shots on target in 2019-20; now, he has three from four. That calibre of finishing is rare and if the latter is a small sample size, his potent run straddles the summer. He has nine goals in 11 league games.
Greenwood’s feats to date have put him alongside George Best, Norman Whiteside and Wayne Rooney among prolific United teenagers. He felt on the verge of another breakthrough, to become the central figure. While Solskjaer invariably deflects questions about Greenwood’s position by stressing his versatility, his frequent station on the right flank had felt a staging post towards becoming a striker: especially given the arrival of Sancho to fill United’s problem position on that wing. It seemed a case of long-term planning.
Then Ronaldo happened. The most relevant part Solskjaer has said about the newcomer, apart from clarifying that he is not signed to sit on the bench, is: “He used to play wide right, wide left, up front. But he's more of a centre-forward for me at the moment.” It was the logical assumption, anyway, but Greenwood is most imperilled by that.
If Ronaldo, whose tally of 11 goals for United as a teenager pales in comparison with Greenwood’s 32, is an example of how to convert potential into incredible levels of performance, the role model could double up as the roadblock.
Greenwood is the menace to defenders who threatened to save United £100 million. For all the suggestions that they required a top-class striker, they have the makings of one. If this season seemed to promise a job-share between Greenwood, Rashford, Martial and Cavani, the Uruguayan looked to be buying United time for Greenwood to develop.
Now the test for Solskjaer is to ensure his development is not delayed by the return of the old favourite. Saturday’s game against Newcastle is the first examination of if and where Greenwood plays but, amid the nostalgia trip, it is worth remembering that Sir Alex Ferguson exiled Ruud van Nistelrooy to build a team around the younger Ronaldo. This time United may have put the future on hold.