Through 80 minutes on Wednesday, Manchester United was in hell—or, was playing an away game against Atlético Madrid, which is the same thing. Though the final possession stats tell a good story for United—it’s never bad to control the ball 63 percent of the time—it was a toothless form of possession, as Atlético fell back into its old ways: score early and then defend like life itself depended on a clean sheet. For those 80 minutes, the strategy worked. Atlético nabbed João Félix’s stunning header in the seventh minute and didn’t look back. It took the insertion of 19-year-old forward Anthony Elanga to change United’s fortunes, both in the match and in the round of 16 tie.
It wasn’t for lack of trying from United’s star men that the score sat at 1–0 for so long; rather, it was due to a lack of execution. Paul Pogba continues to wind down his time in Manchester with subpar performances, and his outing on Wednesday before his 66th minute substitution left much to be desired. The Frenchman looked listless on the ball and slow off of it, allowing Atlético to relieve pressure down the middle. Jadon Sancho, the 85 million Euro man, was possibly even worse, notching only a solitary shot and not much in terms of passing. Cristiano Ronaldo disappeared at the tip of the United attack. The list goes on, and would have led to a disheartening loss if not for Elanga.
Replacing the also ineffectual Marcus Rashford (who knows a little something about star-making European performances as a teen), Elanga didn’t do much in his cameo, but what he did was enough. Making his Champions League debut, the teen found the ball at his feet with no one but Jan Oblak in his path, after Reinildo Mandava failed to slide-clear a Bruno Fernandes through ball. Though Elanga had his body moving towards the touchline rather than the goal once in the box, he was able to slot a cross-body shot on the ground that left Oblak grasping at air:
Though clearly the bigger goal of the two, that makes two tallies in consecutive matches for Elanga, who got subbed on against Leeds on Sunday and scored United’s game-sealing fourth goal in the Roses derby. He scored that one just moments after an object was thrown at him from the stands, which had to make it doubly sweet. In his brief United career, Elanga has 11 appearances, most of them coming off the bench, and three goals. He’s scored with his head (against Brentford) and with his feet, and he projects to be as good at all aspects of forward play as one could want, which has allowed him to rescue United in two games in a row now. His promising showings and his sonorous name have inspired fans to come up with what is instantly the best player chant at the club. Not bad for a player who was itching to leave United before interim manager Ralf Rangnick convinced him to stay after a particularly stellar training session shortly after his appointment:
Elanga might have been in the right place at the right time on Wednesday, benefitting from Reinildo’s slip and some uncharacteristically terrible positioning from Oblak, but he still managed to do what none of United’s big names could. There’s value in that, and it would not surprise if this earns him more time on the field. At the very least, Elanga has made United’s Champions League task much easier: win at home in the second leg, and any offensive struggles will be forgiven. And if there are more struggles, Rangnick knows he has a young but increasingly proven option waiting on the wings to make the difference.