Anthony Elanga’s breakthrough at Man United is all down to ‘drive, mentality and determination’

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During Manchester United’s preseason friendly at Queens Park Rangers last summer, Martyn Pert, part of then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s backroom staff at the time, turned to Darren Fletcher and said, “Anthony Elanga will play for us this season.”

If any of the home fans crammed in at the top of the main stand at Loftus Road on a warm July day had heard him, it probably would have felt like a throwaway comment, but the timing was significant. Just 24 hours earlier, Elanga’s path to the first team had been further complicated by the announcement of Jadon Sancho’s arrival from Borussia Dortmund, but Pert had seen enough during the 19-year-old’s 45-minute cameo in west London to know he could handle the competition.

Elanga stood out in an otherwise disappointing 4-2 defeat to QPR, scoring once and going close on another two occasions.

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“It would be easy to say the boy should go on loan but he’s doing so well,” said Solskjaer afterward. “He’s electric, his pace, his skill, he’s not afraid of anything and he’s got the courage and the bravery of a Man United player. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was staying here. If he keeps on like he is I might want to keep him.”

Sources have told ESPN there was “huge” loan interest in Elanga in the summer from clubs in the Championship and the Premier League, but Solskjaer opted to keep the youngster at Old Trafford despite ending the transfer window with a host of attacking options including Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Sancho. The decision didn’t help the Norwegian stay in a job — he left the club on Nov. 21 after a string of poor results — but it has benefitted his successor, Ralf Rangnick, who made a point of blocking a loan move in January.

Since the German coach’s arrival on an interim basis in December, Elanga has made 17 appearances and scored three goals, including the equaliser at Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie. Pert, it seems, was right all along.

Elanga has been at United since the age of 12, joining shortly after his family moved to Hyde in Greater Manchester from Sweden when his father, Joseph, retired from professional football. Elanga Sr. was a Cameroon international defender and represented his country at the 1998 World Cup. Anthony was born during a career stop at Malmo and as a youngster could count Zlatan Ibrahimovic as an occasional guest at the family home.

After scoring in the 3-1 win over Brentford in January, Elanga swapped shirts with Pontus Jansson, whose career had crossed with Joseph’s in Sweden in 2010. Elanga, who is fluent in English, Swedish and French, has since followed Jansson and been capped as a full Sweden international, coming on as a substitute for the final five minutes of their 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifying playoff. He then played the final 23 minutes of their playoff defeat to Poland on Tuesday night, unable to keep his side from elimination.

Regardless of the setback, he has both Solskjaer and Rangnick to thank for earning his international breakthrough while still a teenager, but he also owes a lot to his own dedication.

A shoulder injury sustained in January 2021 looked set to end his season but almost obsessive rehabilitation work, including regular cryotherapy sessions, meant he was back in time to impress for the under-23s. Then, when Solskjaer was looking for players to promote from the academy to save senior players for the Europa League final against Villarreal, Elanga got the nod. He scored on the final day of the Premier League campaign in a 2-1 win at Wolves.

The late league cameo opened the door to spending preseason with the first team, including that substitute appearance at QPR. He also worked with a private coach over the summer to improve his strength and conditioning; by the start of the season, the stats recorded by club staff showed that he was running faster and jumping higher. His hero growing up was Thierry Henry, and there’s more than a hint of the France great in the way he plays.

“You can see his development and his drive, mentality and determination to get into the first team,” United U23 head coach Neil Wood told ESPN. “It’s been the same since he walked in the door. He’s a humble, hard-working young lad and it’s refreshing to watch him play football. Everyone is proud of what he’s done so far. Obviously there’s still room for improvement and he knows that.

“It shows that if you’re willing to put the work in and you come in with the right attitude and mentality, then there’s a way forward for you and a way into the first team.

“Once you get there, there’s a lot of things you have to do to stay there but he’s a good example for the other young players. He’s one of our homegrown players who we can be proud of and he’s led by example. You see what he’s done in the last few weeks and it’s amazing. We’re really proud of that.”

After a demoralising derby defeat at Manchester City and the Champions League exit to Atletico, United have nine games to salvage something from their season and secure a place in the top four, and it would be no surprise to see Elanga trusted with a central role. His emergence is fast becoming one of the only highlights from an otherwise miserable campaign.There are plenty of question marks hanging over Old Trafford, but for Elanga, at least, the future is bright.