The most iconic shirt in Manchester United’s history had gone unworn in matches since November. There had been no No. 7 in eight months, since Cristiano Ronaldo’s valedictory appearance in defeat to Aston Villa.
Mason Mount is only Ronaldo’s successor in terms of shirt number; he is unlikely to touch the heights the Portuguese did at Old Trafford or exit in as explosive a manner. But his unofficial debut, in a 2-0 friendly win against Leeds in Oslo, brought slight echoes of another of United’s battalion of brilliant No. 7s. David Beckham took set-pieces for the best part of a decade and Mount was on free kicks and corners – when Alvaro Fernandez headed wide, he ought to have had an early assist – though he will probably be relieved of some of those duties when he is on the pitch with some of Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and Marcus Rashford.
But Beckham’s most famous goal for United was a long-range chip; Mount almost scored his first in similar style, albeit from 35 yards rather than 60. It was, nevertheless, an illustration of why Erik ten Hag has made him United’s first summer signing. There was the prowess at pressing to close down and rob defender Jeremiah Mullen and the speed of thought to loft the ball over goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson; his effort landed on the roof of the net. It was a chance created by his energy.
“I am sure he will bring dynamism,” Ten Hag had said an hour earlier. “We need more dynamism in our midfield department.” Mount’s awareness was apparent again with a run behind the Leeds defence to meet Raphael Varane’s pass, when he was perhaps wrongly given offside. Each indicated that United paid £55 million in part for a sharp footballing brain.
They also bought a player whose versatility has allowed him to play different positions. Mount spent most of his Chelsea career in the front three; the indications were already that he would be in a midfield trio for United, and not merely because Ten Hag has never shared Thomas Tuchel’s fondness for 3-4-3. He has not been bought to be a winger, even if he offers an option on the flanks. His first appearance suggested he will be found more at the heart of his new team. Not since Bryan Robson has a United No. 7 played regularly in the middle of midfield.
On his United bow, Mount collected possession immediately in front of the centre-backs more than he used to for Chelsea. He was involved further back in the build-up than before. He played as a prompter, passing forward with crisp purpose. He enjoyed it.
“I really like that role today,” he said. “Being able to drop in deep and get on the ball and start the play from a bit deeper but also having that freedom to be able to get forward, get in the box and try and make the runs in behind and start the press from the front.”
Ten Hag was impressed. “Great but we could expect this. He has so much skills and I am sure we will take so much joy from him and he will contribute to our performance.”
Further contributions should come with different sidekicks. Mount was the senior figure in a trio with a difference, in a midfield with Kobbie Mainoo and Hannibal Mejbri. He is more likely to team up with Casemiro and Fernandes in competitive games, but it was notable that Hannibal operated more as a No. 10 with Mount often behind him.
“His ambition is to play offensive but also he wants to be multi-functional and also complete,” Ten Hag had said. If that is what United require, an all-rounder in midfield, an encouraging element was that Mount looked fit on his first appearance since April after injury curtailed the worst season of his career. He went off after 45 minutes as Ten Hag made 11 changes.
The second-half side was so inexperienced that United were captained by Charlie Savage – Raphael Varane had the armband before the break, while alongside him Lisandro Martinez made his comeback from injury – but the youngsters got United’s pre-season off to a winning start.
The 20-year-old Frenchman Noam Emeran slotted in the first and the 19-year-old Joe Hugill added a second. He was the only specialist centre-forward in the squad Ten Hag took to Norway, with Anthony Martial injured and Rashford yet to return to training. In the first half, Jadon Sancho operated as a false nine for a club who are trying to recruit an out-and-out striker this summer. But the one signing they have made is a midfielder and, while stiffer tests await, it was an auspicious start for Mount.