As the 2018/19 season kicked off Manchester United academy product Mason Greenwood was still only 16. Despite his youth, there were early signs that he was on the verge of the first-team setup when he was included in the club’s 2018 International Champions Cup roster.
His inclusion was partly down to the likes of Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku being unavailable due to their FIFA World Cup involvement, but there were no doubts as to which youngster the club would turn to join the squad in their absence.
The Bradford-born forward joined the club aged six, spending time with the club’s development school in his home county of Yorkshire before moving across the Pennines to begin his career at the club’s youth academy.
Having spent the 2017/18 season with the under-18s, despite still being eligible for the under-16s, it became evident the teenager was able to play above his age group.
Greenwood's height helped him in this regard. Now standing at 1.81m but looking much taller on the field, the forward has burst onto the first-team picture, making his full debut in United’s final game of the season against Cardiff City, playing the full 90 minutes to become the club's second-youngest league debutant.
He had seven shots with four on target — more than any other player – and also contributed three key passes. Greenwood also completed three dribbles, and only Jesse Lingard had more match involvements than the teenager's 76.
This very small sample of stats paints a picture of a skilful, attack-minded player who is always looking to make things happen for his team, either by beating opposition players, shooting himself, or setting up others.
"Mason Greenwood was brilliant, he was our best player by a mile and that says a lot about the kid," United head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær said afterwards.
"He came into a team which lacked confidence and you can see that has taken a toll, but I'm not surprised by his performance, we know he is capable of that.
"We’ll need some characters [next season] but of course you see Mason today, he’s made for Manchester United and a player we’ll see a lot of."
It was a promising performance which builds on an impressive youth career.
When Ricky Sbragia’s United youth side won the ICGT Trophy in May 2018, Greenwood was the youngest player in the squad, but that didn’t stop him being named player of the tournament after scoring three goals including the only goal of the final against Real Madrid.
Given the number of tournaments at youth level and the different age groups involved it’s difficult to determine official statistics, but one compilation recently showed Greenwood scoring 31 goals during the 2018/19 season at youth level, adding a further 12 assists.
A genuine two-footer, the Englishman lines up free kicks with either foot which is rare for even the most experienced players, never mind one so young.
Two-footed-ness isn’t merely strength in both feet, it’s flair and technique too. It’s common for players who can use both feet to be strong on both sides but favour one foot. Not Greenwood.
The scouting software says he’s right-footed, but if anything he tends to favour his left. When does the weaker foot become the stronger foot?
On top of this, he has great strength on the ball combined with a balance which makes it hard for defenders to dispossess him. On the occasions he does lose possession it’s usually due to his ambition, rather than anything the opposition has done to stop him.
His off-the-ball movement is excellent, and this combines with a vision on the ball which makes him just as aware of the movement of his team-mates on the off-chance they happen to be on the same wavelength as him.
His tricks are reminiscent of Rashford’s performances at youth level, but Greenwood has the potential to be even better.
Greenwood is an all-round forward. A creator as well as target man, he has the pace and skill of a winger.
In short, the type of player who is highly sought after in the modern game, and his off-the-ball work will make him even more valuable.
Though it may seem like Greenwood is still too young for the first team, the very best players in world soccer have usually made an impact by the time their teenage years come to an end.
This is especially true in the case of attacking players, who often enjoy the best periods of their career when they are young, quick, and able to play with a freedom only afforded to rookies.
The 2019 International Champions Cup will provide a one-off opportunity to see a player who is destined for the top in his formative years. Manchester United would do well to include him not only on their senior roster next season, but also in their matchday squads and starting lineups.