He scores with his left foot and he scores with the right, the Manchester United fans sing. Mason Greenwood also scores with his head, and his scruffy collector’s item might be his manager’s personal favourite of his 24 career goals.
It had been four months since Greenwood had last registered in the Premier League with a technically flawless winner at West Ham but the positioning of his decider against Brighton highlighted the 19-year-old’s maturity. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his staff and the United substitutes were on their feet to celebrate in the 83rd minute.
Paul Pogba’s shot was a mishit, but Greenwood positioned himself to pounce just in front of the goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. That Ben White ought to have cleared it off the line should not diminish Greenwood’s striker savvy.
That it was only his sixth of the season – a third of the tally Greenwood ended with last term – is besides the point. Greenwood is proof the numbers are not the be-all-and-end-all and his performance level of late has been excellent and he is outperforming more experienced forwards.
Greenwood’s winner came with Marcus Rashford in the dressing room and Edinson Cavani in the stands. The potential absence of Anthony Martial for the entirety of the run-in will only increase the workload on the overworked Rashford, resilient enough to notch his first goal in six games before trudging down the tunnel after another careworn performance.
Cavani, who has been out of the line-up for so long he is reacquainting himself with teammates he does not speak the same language as, did not complete the full 90. Cavani’s contract is ticking towards the final two months and if he already feels like the past then Greenwood is the present and the future. Mino Raiola and Alf-Inge Haaland may have to review the quarantine guidelines for passage to Manchester, with Erling United’s centre-forward priority target.
Brighton were 27 minutes away from leaving M16 with three points for the first time in their history without an away following to celebrate it with. Like the reverse match in September, United defied logic to triumph despite a performance symptomatic of this time of year.
A win is a win, though, and it is enriched by Leicester and Chelsea, third and fourth, both being soundly beaten at home on Saturday. United’s Champions League qualification will be assured before the final day.
Six of United’s starters travelled during the international fortnight and Rashford and Greenwood had recovered from injury. These are not excuses that will wash with supporters hoping to walk back down the Warwick Road next season to witness a genuine championship challenge and Solskjaer became so agitated in the feckless first-half he rounded on Luke Shaw, immune to criticism in recent months. He received a riposte from Bruno Fernandes.
United are still 14 points behind City, still so far ahead they resemble a mirage like they did three years ago. United’s second-please achievement in 2018 was celebrated by Jose Mourinho but ironically derided by Solskjaer, whose gauge of success over the next eight weeks is a silver medal, not that the Premier League hand them out.
Dean Henderson’s de facto status as number one was offset by Solskjaer insisting he has ‘two number ones’. David de Gea emerged long before the starters and had a crowd been present he would have received an appreciative ovation. The changing of the guard has been gradual and overdue, and United will have to address the matter of their highest earner starting games in the stands in the summer.
New status means new nerves, and Henderson dropped two dollies at separate corners. He laudably thwarted Danny Welbeck at the first attempt from open play before the former United striker pounced at the second with the kind of goal he seldom scored during his six years in the United senior side. Welbeck has now struck on all three of his starts at Old Trafford for the visiting side and was warmly embraced by his former reserve manager Solskjaer at full-time.
Brighton will have perfected the manner of the goal religiously, having targeted Aaron Wan-Bissaka with far post centres in the reverse fixture in September. That the breakthrough did not originate from a dead-ball cross was a precursor for the inevitable set-piece threat, as Henderson then had to palm over Lewis Dunk’s header from the first free-kick that was whipped into his area, with Wan-Bissaka outjumped again.
United operated with short-term memories, unaware Brighton were one of the finest sides they have encountered all season before the weekend. An apparent cross from Fernandes ballooned out in what was the cue for Harry Maguire to try and rouse his teammates, demanding a higher tempo. Maguire was more successful in duping the VAR, disguising his nudge on Welbeck inside the six-yard area successfully enough to avoid a retrospective penalty award at 1-1, exposing VAR as a subjective system.
The ropy Rashford agitated Kieran McKenna by defying instructions and Solskjaer cautioned him not to drop deep. Rashford would be droppable if there was sufficient competition and the United attack was so bad Martial might have got a look-in, only he is either out for the season or three weeks, according to his manager or his manager. Solskjaer’s pre-match injury update on Martial was as comical as Kent Brockman’s handling of Mr Burns’s shooting.
He will be happier speaking about Greenwood.