Mason Greenwood is a sensation for Manchester United. The 18-year-old has scored nine goals in around 1000 Premier League minutes, including four goals in his last three games.
It’s hard not to think of Marcus Rashford when seeing an 18-year-old, English striker burst onto the scene for Manchester United. He did the same in 2016, scoring with his first shot in the Premier League and Europa League. So, how can our experiences with Rashford inform our perspective on Greenwood?
The comparison goes beyond the age and club of the two strikers. They are two different prospects, but their early production is remarkably similar.
Both made their breakthroughs with lots of goals on not very many shots. Rashford scored five goals on 16 shots in his first season, finishing 31% of his shots. Greenwood has scored nine of his 34 shots at the time of writing or 26% conversion rate, according to Understat.
The more advanced numbers back up those similarities. They both significantly overperformed their expected goals (xG), a metric that measures chance quality. Rashford scored five goals on 3.03 xG in 2016 and Greenwood has scored nine on 2.99 xG, according to Understat. Their overall production was remarkably similar as well. Rashford put up 0.31 xG per 90 minutes, while Greenwood has 0.27 xG per 90, according to Understat.
The numbers validate the obvious comparison between the two, at least to some extent. Knowing what we know about Rashford’s career arc, how can we apply that to Greenwood? The obvious place to start would be the finishing conversation.
Back in 2016, the Twittersphere was full of arguments over Rashford’s finishing, particularly after he was selected as part of England’s squad for Euro 2016. The arguments can be boiled down to the pro-Rashford camp arguing that he was clearly just an extremely talented player. No way that his technical skills could be “unsustainable.” While the anti-Rashford camp argued that, if this is his level, he’s the best finisher in the world and no one else is even close. No way is he that good.
Now, in 2020, the same arguments are popping up over Greenwood. Using Rashford as a guideline, his incredible finishing did not continue. Since his first season, he has finished slightly below his expected goals (31 non-penalty goals on 35.15 non-penalty xG, according to Understat). Manchester United blog, The Busby Babe, even wrote about how he was struggling to finish earlier this season.
This does not necessarily mean Greenwood’s finishing will regress, they are two different players taking two different paths. But it is another data point to suggest it will. It cannot be overstated how unlikely it is to continue. Lionel Messi, yes, that one, is the poster boy for overperforming xG in the long-term. Over his career, he scores about 1.3 goals per expected goal. For Greenwood to continue anything near his current level (3 goals per expected goal), he’ll have to be quite the player.
None of this is to say that Greenwood isn’t a fantastic prospect. Anyone playing significant Premier League minutes for a top six side at the age of 18 is impressive. It was true for Rashford in 2016 and it’s the case for Greenwood now.
That said, he is still 18 and it may take time for him to become a special player. Using Rashford as a guide once again, his second and third seasons consisted of similar underlying production but without the crazy finishing. His level at the time wasn’t as high as his goals suggested and the growth didn’t come immediately. But, in time, he took the next step. He was able to significantly increase his underlying production in the last two seasons and looks like a Champions League level player at age 22.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Greenwood will go down the same path. He may increase his production sooner or he may stagnate. It is important to remember that it’s not the end of the world when his finishing regresses. He’s a fantastic prospect and his start is excellent. But, like with Rashford in 2016, there’s been some unsustainability in that start and it may take time before he’s truly at the top level.