The story of Anthony Elanga's breakthrough

Sunday 20 March 2022 07:00

For the first two minutes of his post-match interview with BT Sport, moments after the final whistle had blown in the Wanda Metropolitano, Ralf Rangnick’s expression seldom changed.

His half-furrowed brow accompanied attempts to make sense of United’s lacklustre opening 45 minutes against Atletico Madrid, the late pilfering of a first-leg draw and the overall mentality he was seeking to impose on his side.

Then, interviewer Des Kelly turned the topic to the man whose ice-cold finish had squared matters at the halfway point of the tie – Anthony Elanga – and the German’s demeanour changed for the first time. Eyebrows raised, a half-smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

“He’s playing for him as if a dream comes true,” offered Rangnick, “and it’s just joy and fun to watch him play. He’s just enjoying himself on the pitch and that’s what it’s all about. Football is a ball game and you have to enjoy yourself on the pitch.”

Watch how Anthony rolled a marvellous finish past Atletico’s Jan Oblak (with his first touch)

Less than 11 months ago, the prospect of winning a one-on-one duel with Jan Oblak, one of the world’s finest goalkeepers, was literally nothing more than fantasy for a teenager yet to make a single senior appearance. Rangnick’s predecessor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had warned of what was coming, saying last April: “In Anthony, we have a player with good skills, a great attitude and he scores goals from either the right or left, and he’s got good pace. He’s got that X-factor.”

And yet, for all the forewarning, for the outings (and a goal) against Leicester and Wolves last season, Elanga’s impact at first-team level in 2021/22 has still been sensational. Behind the meteoric rise, the fuel has been simple but effective. Winner of the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award in 2020 for his exploits in the Under-18s’ Covid-curtailed season, the Swedish forward has hauled himself into the senior setup with total commitment and relentless graft in addition to his footballing attributes. That period included training sessions with ex-Reds striker Dwight Yorke, who was impressed by what he saw.

“I think he has a really good chance of making it,” the former Trinidad & Tobago star told The Athletic. “I was impressed by his attitude when I spent time with him. He was trying to be the best, he was willing to listen properly and he has plenty of speed. I also told him not to get bogged down into trying to be the star man and explained that he had to work in different ways, including doing some of the ugly stuff in football which not every player likes to do — all that running off the ball. I explained to Anthony that if you have that persistence, you’ll end up getting your rewards in the long run.”


The long run hasn’t been too long in coming. A superb volley in the Reds’ pre-season draw with Brentford at Old Trafford signalled the 19-year-old’s comfort on the big stage, and a string of impressive cameos in the immediate aftermath of Solskjaer’s departure were a mere prelude to his breakthrough night in the Premier League when he opened the scoring with a niftily crafted and converted header against the Bees at Brentford Community Stadium.

Within days, a new chant had been dreamed up to herald the Reds’ latest Academy starlet, to the tune of Snap’s 1990s hit Rhythm is a Dancer. When Elanga next took to the field, in the last-gasp Premier League win over West Ham at Old Trafford, he was taken aback.

“It means a lot,” he smiles. “The first time I heard it was at the West Ham game. I had the ball and I could just hear my name! I was thinking ‘Oh, is that my name?!’ I passed the ball and looked over to the Stretford End and I could just hear them singing. I was like, ‘Ooh, I would never have expected that!’ It gives me confidence. Every time I get on the ball I want to create something, especially when the fans sing. I want to show them and repay them, they’re not singing for no reason, they’re singing for a reason and I appreciate them so much. It’s a dream come true and I live for moments like this. It means a lot.”

See how the Swede sealed the deal late on in a dramatic encounter at Elland Road.

Life comes at you fast, of course, particularly in football. Having gone into the international break post-West Ham on a high, Anthony experienced the opposite end of football when United were somehow taken to a penalty shootout despite dominating their FA Cup fourth-round tie with Middlesbrough.

After Boro had taken an 8-7 lead, Elanga’s effort sailed into the Stretford End to seal an exit that, while undeserved, could not be dressed up. Among the first to console the Reds’ no.36 was Cristiano Ronaldo, who quickly and pointedly reassured Anthony that such setbacks happen – citing his own missed penalty during the game less than two hours earlier. Having the opportunity to turn to one of the all-time greats in such moments, and on a daily basis, is something that the Swede clearly relishes.

“It’s really good,” he beams. “I get into training quite early and I see him and we have a chat, and we’ll speak a lot. If we had a game the day before we’ll speak about the game or training, and we also speak about what we do in the gym. He’s a really good person to have around the place, not just because of what he does on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. If we need any help we can speak to him. He’s easy-going and a really good person to be around.”

Certainly a man to keep your eyes on...

The role of meticulous preparation in Cristiano’s career is no secret, and Anthony is already renowned for taking a similarly committed approach to life in the gym and out on the training pitch. Every day is a school day, with information all around him just waiting to be soaked up. “It all starts from training and in the gym, and it’s about looking at what the other players do and taking some notes from them. Training with them day-in, day-out helps me a lot, not just from a technical side of the game, but a tactical side of the game too, and what they do out of possession [for example], and that all leads into the games. When I’m in a game I like to talk a lot with the older lads and they give me really good advice, which helps me a lot. Speaking every day to the likes of Rashy, Jesse and Scott, and training with them every day, is brilliant.”

That studious approach further impressed Rangnick who, after first accepting the role of interim manager, watched YouTube videos of Elanga in action and quickly shelved plans for the youngster to be loaned out. The door was open to a player with Anthony’s talent and application, regardless of his age.

“From the start when we did our first session, he was like: ‘If you continue to be 100 per cent in everything you do then you will play,’” explains Anthony. “He gives me good advice and helps me a lot, and obviously he’s been giving me game-time as well, which I appreciate a lot. I just want to repay the favour by putting in the performances and giving 150 per cent in training, and leading into the games with that and keeping that up.”

Looking very much at home at Old Trafford


The results speak for themselves. Prior to his unforgettable leveller against Atletico in Madrid – with his first touch, no less – he had clinched victory over Leeds with the Reds’ fourth goal at Elland Road. Goals are a forward’s currency, naturally, but Elanga’s demeanour on the field has been just as eye-catching.

“He’s hungry, he’s humble as a young player coming into the team, and he’s just champing at the bit,” noted United legend Rio Ferdinand, after the draw with Atletico. “I like the fact that he’s impacted games. Three away goals – which is a big thing, scoring away from home – and he’s come on and contributed. I think that’s all you want as a young player, to come on and not be anonymous, have an impact, and he’s done that. I think he’s a really good example to all young players coming through – you bide your time, you get in and you’ve got to make your mark when you get in there.”

Contributing to the collective, enjoying himself and lifting spirits on and off the pitch, it’s safe to say that Anthony Elanga has already made his mark at United. And there’s still so much more to come from him – you can feel it in the air.

This feature was first published in April’s edition of Inside United, and you can buy or subscribe to the magazine here.