Amid Manchester United’s troubled campaign, Anthony Elanga’s emergence has been an undoubted high point.
The young striker may not start Wednesday’s first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Atletico Madrid, but if Ralf Rangnick needs to make changes, the 19-year-old forward is bound to be high on the list of options he will turn to.
Elanga scored his second goal in nine Premier League appearances during Sunday’s 4-2 win at Leeds. Including his debut effort at Wolves in the final game of last season, an overall top-flight return of three from 11 games is not bad given he has only completed the full 90 minutes twice.
For a club that prides itself on youth development, Elanga’s emergence has provided welcome respite from a series of devastating results, a managerial sacking, coaches departing, rumours of splits in the camp and players taking to social media to challenge statements their interim boss has made about them in press conferences.
It would be wrong to give Rangnick all the credit for Elanga’s recent development.
Predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave the Sweden Under-21 striker his debut last season and had promoted him to train with the first-team squad this season.
It is how Rangnick also saw Elanga at first hand the day after United had beaten Arsenal on 2 December, when training on the German’s first day in charge was conducted with restricted numbers because of the number of players doing warm-down sessions.
Rangnick was impressed enough to seek out YouTube clips of a player he had monitored previously during his time at RB Leipzig. Until then, the feeling had been that Elanga might benefit from a January loan move.
So impressive was he in those early days the plan was quickly changed. Rangnick even toyed with the idea of giving the teenager a shock start in the weekend encounter with Crystal Palace – but was then introduced from the bench.
“From the very first training session, the day before the Crystal Palace game, he just showed me,” recalled Rangnick. “He was showing up in the training sessions.
“He’s a very polite boy, he’s doing the right things, listens to what he should do and is trying to put all the effort into his performances.”
A breath of fresh air
Elanga’s attitude has been faultless, according to United sources. His work ethic is good and he has not got carried away with the recent plaudits that have come his way.
He is quiet but has been accepted by senior figures within the squad, which tends to be a solid sign of a talented player, and has developed friendships with fellow youngsters Teden Mengi, Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri.
Elanga’s birth certificate says he is Swedish, but he benefits from local knowledge given he moved to Manchester when he was 12 after dad Joseph, a former Cameroon international who played in the 1998 World Cup, retired.
He didn’t spend long at Hattersley junior club before scouts were alerted to his presence, with United beating a lot of competition, including from Manchester City, to get the speedy, skilful attacker into their academy.
United’s coaching staff have been impressed at Elanga’s ability to contribute within the team structure, either as a starter or off the bench, and his desire to increase his goals output. That is something it is felt will come with more exposure to high-level football, both at club level and with Sweden.
Overall, it is said Elanga has been “a breath of fresh air”, something that has been noted by supporters keen for some good news amid the gloom of another campaign spent trailing in the wake of Manchester City and Liverpool. He has more than warranted the new contract he was given in December, which will keep him at Old Trafford until 2026.
“My ultimate ambition has always been to play for Manchester United,” said Elanga at the time. “The standard is extremely high but this contract is another important moment in my journey.”
Swapping shirts with Pontus
There was interest from the Premier League and the Championship in Elanga last summer, by which time the player had done extensive work in the gym and worked hard to improve his pace and jumping effectiveness.
This attention to detail is viewed as a barometer of Elanga’s determination to succeed, just as an ability to speak four languages, including French and Spanish, is more evidence of a well-rounded individual.
Evidently, there remains something of the kid about him too though, judging by the way he headed to Brentford defender Pontus Jansson to swap shirts following the meeting in London last month.
Jansson is a former Malmo team-mate of Elanga’s dad from his second spell at the club. At the start of his first, in 2000, so too was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was a frequent visitor at home.
As with any young player, Elanga has some growing up to do. But it does appear he is well placed to navigate the process in as smooth a manner as it is possible – given the vast changes in status that accompany the transition from promising junior to first-team player at a club the size of United.
With Solskjaer’s permanent successor due to be announced in the summer, Elanga’s medium-term career path could still involve a loan option.
However, given Rangnick’s faith in him, the forward seems sure to play a sizeable role in United’s quest for a top-four place and Champions League success over the next few weeks.
And, however the campaign works out, in Elanga, United fans have at least one reason to look back on a difficult season with fondness.