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Manchester United: Why Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival causes a headache for Mason Greenwood

He may wear the No 11 but undoubtedly Mason Greenwood’s future is as a No 9. The only question is: should it be right now for Manchester United?

The shock re-signing of Cristiano Ronaldo means United now have one of the greatest goalscorers in history in their ranks once again, and at the age of 36 he is no longer able to pound up and down the wing so must start as a striker.

Yet Greenwood has been impressive for the Red Devils with two goals in as many Premier League games to start the new season. The 19-year-old has demonstrated his unerring finishing ability with the manner of how he has scored both goals too.

Mason Greenwood has made a bright start to the season in attack for Manchester United

Greenwood opened his account for the term with this brilliant finish during a 5-1 win vs Leeds

Greenwood opened his account for the term with this brilliant finish during a 5-1 win vs Leeds

He then followed it up with another goal - this time to earn United a point against Southampton

He then followed it up with another goal – this time to earn United a point against Southampton

In the 5-1 opening-day win against Leeds he flew by Pascal Struijk before firing low into the bottom right-hand corner while on the run. And then last Sunday, he showed his poacher’s instinct with a close-range effort that squirmed in to earn United a point during a 1-1 draw at Southampton.

In both of those matches, Greenwood was deployed differently by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In the thumping home win over Leeds, the forward was used as the central striker while on the south coast he was deployed on the right of the front three.

Is it a coincidence that United dropped points due to a change of Greenwood’s positioning? Not entirely, as the team lacked creativity – especially in midfield due to Fred and Nemanja Matic. However, the visitors certainly missed Greenwood’s clever movement more centrally as opposed to the more static Anthony Martial.

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to United means Greenwood is no longer the best finisher at the club

Ronaldo will have to operate as a No 9, meaning Greenwood's chances to play as a striker are diminished

Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to United means Greenwood is no longer the best finisher at the club, and Greenwood’s chances to play as a striker have been diminished

Solskjaer has a habit of tinkering his starting XIs and they don’t always produce the desired effect – as last weekend’s result proved.

Martial was ineffective up front due to mainly receiving no service but he often seems more at ease on the left of a frontline rather than as a focal point – with many believing he lacks the clinical touch of a Greenwood, for example.

United legend Rio Ferdinand was scathing of his former team-mate Solskjaer for not utilising Greenwood centrally from the off against Southampton.

Ferdinand lauded Greenwood for his ‘joke’ performance against Leeds but was left bemused as to why the teenager was shifted out wide the following week – labelling Solskjaer’s tactics as ‘baffling’.

Against Leeds, Greenwood played as a No 9

But he was shifted to the right wing vs Southampton

Against Leeds, Greenwood played as a No 9 but was shifted to the right wing vs Southampton

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (pictured) decided to start Anthony Martial up front on Sunday

However, Martial proved ineffective on the south coast

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) decided to start Anthony Martial up front last Sunday

‘Mason Greenwood has arguably been our best player since we’ve come back,’ the ex-defender said on his YouTube channel FIVE.

‘In one of the pre-season games I saw, I think against Everton, and the two games we’ve played in the league, he’s been [unbelievable].

‘The guy has come back stronger, fitter, better, he’s growing into a man from a boy – so why shift him from centre forward to out wide to bring Anthony Martial in? I don’t understand it.

‘He’s the goal-getter. [Edinson] Cavani’s not fit; Greenwood, put him as a No 9, I think he’s good enough to do that.

‘So to play him out wide again, that was the one baffling thing for me.’

United legend Rio Ferdinand believes Greenwood is best suited as a centre-forward

United legend Rio Ferdinand believes Greenwood is best suited as a centre-forward

It’s hard to argue with Ferdinand’s analysis. Of the forwards who were available to Solskjaer, Greenwood was the only one able to have a full pre-season. Cavani has had an extended off-season break, Marcus Rashford is injured, while Martial’s start was his first for United since March 21 – a 3-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Leicester.

If Martial looked off-the-boil on the south coast then you can point to a lack of a pre-season. Just a week after losing at Leicester, the striker suffered a knee injury on international duty with France.

Five months without starting a match, which obviously includes a summer break, isn’t ideal. Greenwood up front worked to devastating effect against Leeds and hindsight says he should have been given the chance to remain as the main man for the trip to Southampton.

Starting Greenwood through the middle could have allowed £73million summer signing Jadon Sancho to make his full debut or allow Dan James to keep his place having been in the starting XI that thrashed Leeds.

And then with a tiring Southampton backline, Martial could have developed his match fitness by coming on during the second half.

Edinson Cavani is returning to full fitness too, which will also hurt Greenwood's chances

Edinson Cavani is returning to full fitness too, which will also hurt Greenwood’s chances

Until Ronaldo’s arrival, Greenwood was the best finisher at the club and Solskjaer recently spoke of how the teenage boy is physically transforming into a ‘man’.

‘I think you can see how much work he has put down in his pre-season, in his summer, he has turned into a man,’ said an ecstatic Solskjaer after the win over Leeds.

‘He is filling out, he is stronger. His stride is stronger and you know when he ran away from the defender and scored his goal, it was a joy to see.

‘His approach, attitude and application, everything he has done every day has been getting better and better and I think that’s maturity as well in the kid.’

Many United fans will hope Greenwood starts at centre-forward for Sunday's trip to Wolves

Many United fans will hope Greenwood starts at centre-forward for Sunday’s trip to Wolves

United travel to Wolves next in the Premier League on Sunday and it won’t be a surprise if Solskjaer tinkers with his team again.

They lacked a cutting edge against Southampton and Greenwood can help rectify that if given the No 9 role.

Until Ronaldo is ready, Cavani is back and Martial returns to some semblance of form, he’s the best man for the position. United have already dropped points in the title race and can’t afford to do so once again so early in the season if they have any aspirations to challenge.

But beyond the Wolves game Solskjaer now has a real headache. How can he ensure Greenwood’s development is not stalled by Ronaldo’s arrival? 

Yes, the Portuguese’s presence on the training ground will ensure Greenwood gets the best possible insight into the mindset needed to become a great player, and their friendly training-ground competition for finishing bragging rights would be a sight to behold, and could elevate the English youngster’s goalscoring ability even further.

But what Greenwood most needs for his development right now is time on the pitch at No 9. He is already a top-class goalscorer and he will only improve his skills as the main striker by regularly coming up against the game’s best centre-halves. Minutes in the League Cup, while Ronaldo and Cavani share Premier League and Champions League duties, will not suffice. 

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