Greenwood bails out Man United as Solskjaer's youngsters struggle to inspire lacklustre colleagues
Having spent much of his time as Manchester United manager promising to do so, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally unleashed the kids in their Europa League opener against Astana.
Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes were all given their first starts of the season, while Axel Tuanzebe lined up in defence after making only one substitute appearance since returning from a fruitful loan spell.
As a contest, it certainly was not as straightforward as Solskjaer would have hoped, as United made hard work of overcoming the Kazakh champions.
Yet Solskjaer's experimenting was just about vindicated by Greenwood getting the only goal of the game 17 minutes from time - the forward bailing out his more experienced team-mates on a frustrating evening at Old Trafford.
Nevertheless, it was still a mixed outing for United's youngsters. We assess how they fared.
United's next great hope was making his first start since the 2-0 defeat to Cardiff City on the final day of last season, though this contest will have felt like small fry compared to his only previous European outing, a substitute appearance in the famous 3-1 win at Paris Saint-Germain last term.
Operating initially from the right, he went extremely close to opening the scoring in the 16th minute after Marcus Rashford's clever flick, drilling a fierce left-footed strike just wide of the top-left corner. Solskjaer said Greenwood was one of the best finishers he has ever seen on Wednesday – it would have been easy to see why had he buried that opportunity.
However, Solskjaer's need for Greenwood – as United's only back-up striker – to prove a point and get a goal arguably spared the teenager from being taken off instead of Gomes in the second half, having failed to meet expectations.
The Norwegian's faith ultimately paid off.
For once, a United player didn't just do the obvious. Greenwood twisted and turned in the area and coolly slotted between the goalkeeper's legs for his first official senior goal, which will surely be a weight off his shoulders.
Almost two-and-a-half years on from his United debut, Gomes was finally awarded a first senior start and he looked eager to impress, dazzling a defender in the first minute before then winning a foul with a clever turn just a few moments later.
In the first half, Gomes looked the most likely to make something happen creatively, his quick feet winning a couple of free-kicks and providing the only defence-splitting pass just before the half-hour mark when releasing Diogo Dalot, whose subsequent cross was dealt with.
Gomes' ability in tight spaces continued to look like providing a potential route to goal in the second period – the attacking midfielder drawing fouls and creating space, but United refused to use him as often as they should have.
In the end, he was somewhat unfortunate to be taken off after generally justifying his selection. The fans will definitely be hoping to see more from Gomes in the coming weeks.
After looking bright as a substitute against Leicester City, it was not a huge surprise to see Netherlands youth international Chong make the starting XI.
While his display was a little braver than Greenwood's before the break, Chong did show he is still the rawest of the three youngsters in attack.
His touch was far too heavy on several occasions, while he lacked the power to really trouble the Astana defence, one early run aside.
He was unsurprisingly withdrawn for Jesse Lingard in the second half, having been largely disappointing.
3 - Manchester United are handing starts to three teenagers against Astana (Greenwood, Chong and Gomes); their most in a Europa League/Champions League game since November 2009 against Besiktas (Welbeck, Macheda and Rafael). Future. #MNUAST pic.twitter.com/biPjAAAjus— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 19, 2019
Following a solid season on loan at Aston Villa, Tuanzebe has moved well up the pecking order at Old Trafford and was a commanding presence on his first start for the club since May 2017.
The 21-year-old showed an effective blend of physicality and technical ability, one first-half moment typifying that when he recovered to outpace and outmuscle Dorin Rotariu, before taking the ball back and dribbling forward after the Romanian had flicked the ball over his head.
Otherwise Tuanzebe had little defending to do, with the centre-back often stepping forward into midfield given United's dominance, but his solidity was highlighted by the fact he won 75 per cent of his 16 duels.
Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:32 IST