Mason Greenwood stakes claim to be Harry Kane’s de facto England deputy
Farewell then, the Premier League season. You tried hard. You provided the odd squall of intensity. Manchester City, also known as the Premier League champions 2020-21 after this result, were very good for a long time in mid-season. Leicester City, who moved close to sealing a top-four spot with victory, have been a genuinely bright spark, fun to watch, and deserving of their likely reward.
But at times this game seemed like a Viking funeral for the peculiar season just passed, all trapped energy, fake noise, tired minds and bodies, and no rest or space to breathe between the next splurge of digital product. At the end of which a 2-1 win for a persistent Leicester against a Manchester United Select XI all but caps the final remaining storyline at the top of the table. This was pretty much the only real tension left from here: will Leicester blow it? Will we get to watch that happen, the blowing of a place in the top four of a league that has now been won?
At Old Trafford Leicester thought about blowing it, mulled the idea of blowing it around in their oversized cognac balloon, gave it a sniff, frowned, then finally rejected the idea. United gave them an assist along the way, sending out a team so hurled together that Leicester were able to get away with dishing up an hour of not much.
By the time James Maddison came on in the 65th minute the game had all the rhythm of a backfiring petrol lawnmower, spaces occupied uneasily, players kicking the ball around like they hated it. Brendan Rodgers stood in the rain and applauded a little desperately, the only man clapping inside Old Trafford. And it was around Rodgers this remaining tension has seemed to swirl. Failure to get over the line would – and still could – create an unbearable narrative, grooving beyond reasonable deniability the idea that there is something in him that recoils as the finish line approaches.
At which point Leicester took their decisive lead, Caglar Soyuncu heading in from Marc Albrighton’s corner. Marcus Rashford, just on as a substitute, failed to track his man. Soyuncu met the ball like a polo mallet squashing a tangerine, thunking the ball into the back of the net with the meatiest sweet spot of his objectively meaty forehead.
And that was one of two significant things that happened in this all-but season-ending, all-but decisive game. The other thing was another start and another goal for Mason Greenwood, with confirmation in that moment of the growing sense he should be going to the European Championship next month as the second best English central striker, and Harry Kane’s de facto deputy.
United had been vague and meandering early on. They gave the ball away. They ran in circles. They went behind to Luke Thomas’ mind-boggling finish on 10 minutes. Youri Tielemans’ deep right-wing cross swirled over the head of Jamie Vardy. It dropped for Thomas at an oblique angle on the far edge of the box. He waited just long enough, then spanked it on the volley back across the goal, the ball fizzing into the top corner with an agreeable severity.
Four minutes later United were level. This time Thomas was nudged off the ball by a surging blindside run from Amad Diallo. His pass was taken by Greenwood, who did that thing he does, burning Soyuncu out of his peripheral space just by shifting the ball from one foot to the other.
This is one of the simple, un-showy things Greenwood does so well. It is remarkable so few elite footballers are this good with both sides of their body, able not just to shoot and pass but to feint and dribble both ways. Greenwood shot so swiftly Kasper Schmeichel had no time to complete his dive.
He has eight goals in his last 11 games. Before that it was one in his previous 26. Such is the way with young attackers, even prodigiously gifted ones. This isn’t really about the numbers though. Kane aside, eight English central strikers have more goals than Greenwood this season.
But none are in such fine season-ending form. And very few come with the same sense of high ceilinged possibilities. Greenwood has every attribute, barring concussive power, and that will come insofar as it matters. He is such a dreamily high-spec footballer you feel England could send him out against anyone, match him up against the best, and he wouldn’t look out of place or lose much by comparison. Go with the talent, Gareth.
And so that was pretty much that. Leicester still need a point, maybe three of them, to be sure of a top-four place. City are champions. And Ole Gunnar Solskjær will perhaps get some flak for sending out a massively changed team, a mix of baby-faced babies and the odd grizzled midfield assassin.
This would be pointless. United were dealt a bum hand by scheduling, by the weirdness of the world and by the delay to the Liverpool game. But footballers have employment rights too. And Liverpool’s own muddled and fraught title defence certainly didn’t turn on a fudged United lineup on a Tuesday night in May.