Anthony Elanga is continuing to make quite the impression. Elanga was the right substitute at the right time as Manchester United were in search of a goal to relinquish the one-goal deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League second round. Latching onto Bruno Fernandes’ pass and converting past the out of form goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Elanga saved United from a potentially dire situation going into the second leg.
Pre-match discussion suggested this was a game for the taking from a United perspective. United have room to improve under Ralf Rangnick, but have only lost once and still boast attacking talent. Meanwhile, Atletico sit 5th in La Liga, and have already conceded 34 league goals, more than the entirety of last season’s title winning campaign.
Yet the encounter oversaw much of what we have come to expect of sides led by manager Diego Simeone. Which ever side that is more telling of is up for debate.
Atletico sacrificed possession to United, but in doing so were organised, compact, limiting the space United had to progress the ball through the lines and closing down high up the pitch. Although now setting up in a 3-5-2 rather than the synonymous 4-4-2, many of the principles remained.
United started their accustom 4-2-3-1, but interestingly with Victor Lindelof starting at right-back, even though primary choices Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were both available. Fred started in a pivot role amidst good form in recent games, but was a trigger for Ateltico’s press whenever he received the ball from the defence. Fred had little space to turn when marked, and Atletico did well to cut out passing lanes to United’s two wingers.
Atletico’s best player was arguably left wing-back Lodi, who not only pushed up high to press when the ball was on United’s right side, but also was the outlet which Atletico looked to find time and time again when they had the ball, with his cross assisting Joao Felix header to give Atletico the lead.
When United did have the ball they struggled to impose themselves aside from Atletico pressing, and that was because of a lack of penetrating movement in attack. Fernandes, playing as an 8, for example, would often drop deeper to receive the ball and bring it forward, but United often lacked runners – diagonal and/or in behind, ahead of the man on the ball.
And because of the how narrow a 3-5-2 shape can be, there was the idea that United could make use of spaces down the flanks, but Atletico would overload the flank United were attacking down, and shut down both these and even counter-attacks quickly. United struggled to attack down the flanks, and did not make enough use of the centre against Ateltico’s midfield – who were solid.
But as the second-half progressed, many of the issues United faced when in possession were not going to be sorted without making a change. United only took 7 shots come full time, suggesting their overall struggle to create chances. Elanga was United’s third change, and was brought on for Marcus Rashford after 75 minutes.
5 minutes later, Elanga scored. The goal showed off his mobility in attacking moves, Atletico’s defensive issues perhaps hidden for the majority of the game, and the importance of occupying defenders. Joao Felix has a way of dropping off and losing a marker. But Elanga exploited the home sides loss of structure without the ball with a run directly through the centre of the pitch – where United failed to make more use of when attacking previously.
With United in possession on the left, Elanga was stationed centrally. He had not only space around him, but space to run ahead and receive, if the ball can be switched from left to centre in time whilst Atletico overloaded the flank.
A header brought the ball down to ground, where Fred then passed to Fernandes.
Fernandes then turned and carried forward, with Elanga immediately bursting into space, all whist Atletico struggled to regroup against this quick transition. Much of Atletico’s back five were higher up the pitch than they should have been to defend against a run like that being made.
The midfielder then threaded a ball through to Elanga, making sure Elanga’ speed made use of the space made available to him by Atletico’s arguably poor structure. Elanga ran onto the ball, and was at an angle that meant when inside the box he was able to open up and shoot and duly convert.
Elanga’s mobility up front may seem straight forward and not worth breaking down, but at the moment, it’s refreshing given the profiles of United’s attackers; Rashford and Jadon Sancho both like to receive the ball to feet, rather than running onto it, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani (although providing invaluable movement) both lack their speed of prior years.
In which case, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to want Elanga to start the second-leg, and even more league games after scoring against Leeds United before Wednesday night. He could occupy a role on either flank, or even play as the no.9, so it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge fitting Elanga in.