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teen sensation ‘Reliable’ Elanga the model student is showing Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes the way at United

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Manchester United's Anthony Elanga celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo

Manchester United's Anthony Elanga celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo

Manchester United's Anthony Elanga celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo

At half-time in Madrid, Ralf Rangnick realised a pretty drastic intervention was needed. It wasn’t at that point substitutions, or anything to do with tactics. It was purely psychological.

Rangnick didn’t believe his Manchester United were playing with the required intensity, especially against an Atletico Madrid as fired up as that.

“This is just not enough,” the German told his players. “You have fought for the whole season to be in the Champions League, you have to raise yourself.”

Rangnick didn’t initially get the “conviction” he wanted, though. United remained quite listless. They remained quite open. There were still some tactical issues, and the introduction of Nemanja Matic did bring better balance.

It was the introduction of a mere 19-year-old, however, that finally changed the mood.

There are a few reasons Rangnick adores Anthony Elanga. He already found the teenager and Jadon Sancho were the players who best responded to his coaching, Rangnick sees Elanga as “super reliable”, offering energy and effort in possession and out of it.

It was this conviction that brought United’s precious equalising goal and a 1-1 draw. It was this that brought such effusive praise from Rangnick.

“He plays with joy,” the German beamed. “He knows his assets and is always trying to show them. He has shown what is possible in football with the right approach. This is what he does in every training session.”

Elsewhere, Rangnick had said Elanga is a “lesson” to some of his team-mates.

Many might have taken that to mean players like Marcus Rashford, and even Cristiano Ronaldo, but there’s a deeper point there.

Everything that was said about Elanga used to be said about Rashford. There used to be that fearlessness. There used to be that energy. Rashford was one of the few bright sparks in a fairly drab 2015-’16 season for United.

On Wednesday, he was one of a few players who put in dreadful performances against Atletico.

It was why, even though it was 1-1, it long had the feel of a bad night for United.

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Up until around the 75th minute, you could have had a pretty strong competition for the worst performer.

Rashford seemed wasteful every time he got the ball. He kept making the wrong decisions, be that in runs, passes or even touches, illustrating a player on bad form and low on confidence.

Paul Pogba, however, was largely absent. There were large gaps everywhere he was supposed to be, as if he wasn’t looking to get involved, let alone demanding the ball in the manner a player of his class should.

A largely immobile Ronaldo was meanwhile being physically bullied. And this by Atletico, a team he used to psychologically terrorise.

There was a mirthful rendition of “suuuuiii!” – Ronaldo’s expression during his trademark goal celebration – around the stadium when he skied a free-kick in the second half.

Bruno Fernandes had many such moments. When attempting to thread one through ball shortly before that Ronaldo free-kick, he somehow blazed his effort into the sky. He also kept giving the ball away.

Until, with Elanga making a run that demanded focus, Fernandes finally got one right.

He did benefit from Jose Gimenez getting it wrong, but the adventure of his pass admittedly matched the adventure of Elanga’s play.

It was another decisive moment. This, to be fair, is precisely why many call Fernandes “a moments player”. He can do nothing, or get everything wrong, for 89 minutes, and then offer that individual piece of inspiration.

The difference between him and Elanga, and the way they combined, illustrates the issues at United right now. It also illustrates some of the evolution under Rangnick.

It is no exaggeration to say United are a squad of individuals, with Fernandes maybe being the ultimate individual. Managers find him difficult to coach. He goes everywhere. He does his own thing.

Elanga, by contrast, is a coach’s dream. It was his running that brought United together here, that influenced an intensity that elevated the performance of the team.

He is an individual who makes a difference, but in a way that is different to what that usually means. He brings a conviction that helps bind the team together.


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