When Anthony Elanga stepped out onto the turf at Molineux, there appeared to be an anxious expression painted across his face.
It wasn’t his Premier League debut — that had come a week earlier against Aston Villa — but there was almost an expectation placed upon his broad shoulders that this was his chance to shine.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had fielded the Swedish youngster for a second game running, having chosen to heavily rotate his lineup for the match against Leicester City due to their Europa League Final commitments.
Elanga was one of two debutants, along with £37m signing Amad, as Solskjaer handed a run-out to his fringe players.
He was substituted midway through the second half as United attempted to fight back from a goal down, but it was no slight on his solid performance.
But against Wolves, the 19-year-old was selected again — and once again, there would be no Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford or Edinson Cavani from the start. It was down to him.
For the early period of the match, it seemed the occasion may have been too great for Elanga. His touch was heavy, he was staying out of the action and Amad was shining instead.
The pressure was understandable. Even with nothing at stake for United, with it being the final day of the season, some players only get one game to make their claim for a first-team spot.
But with 13 minutes on the clock, his chance arrived on a silver platter and he wasn’t going to miss, sending a bullet header past Rui Patricio to hand United the lead.
Manchester United via Getty Imag)
United would go on to win the game 2-1 and Solskjaer reserved special praise for the talented forward in his post-match interview.
“He’s got some attributes you wish for as a player, that pace, directness, he’s right-footed, but he’s equally as good on his left,” Solskjaer said.
“I’ve not seen him score headers like this so that was a big bonus as well.
“The future is bright for him and I know I can trust him to keep his feet on the ground and make the most of his talent.”
Action Images via Reuters)
While United’s international stars enjoy their holidays and extended break, Elanga has taken his chance in pre-season with some hard work on the training ground and in the gym.
It has paid off too, with the Swede earning starts in their friendlies against QPR and Brentford. Despite the adverse scoreline in both encounters, Elanga made sure his name shone bright in the match reports.
With the score looking rather embarrassing for United at 4-1 down at Loftus Road, he found the ball on the edge of the area and with one touch coolly found the bottom corner from 20 yards.
The goalkeeper was rooted to the spot, knowing he was beaten, and Elanga merely trudged back to the centre circle, knowing that the glimmer of hope he had given his team was more important than his goal celebration.
Against Brentford, it was Aaron Wan-Bissaka who curled in a low cross and Elanga shrugged off his marker with some excellent movement inside the box before volleying home impressively.
AFP via Getty Images)
It was the finish of a striker who was entering his peak and had scored at least 20 goals like that in his career, showing the maturity on his young shoulders and excellent technique too.
In front of the Old Trafford crowd, he had made it impossible for them to forget his performance with a fine strike — and the same applied to his manager.
The senior players are due to return this week to get match fit for the new season, which is only 16 days away.
But while his United academy colleagues may now head out on loan or stay within the development squad, Elanga has forced his way into Solskjaer’s thinking for first-team duties.
“Of course, with Elanga, a decision on him is a big one,” he said after the draw with Brentford.
“There’s Marcus and his injury status, so we’ll make a decision on Amad when he comes back and sit down with him.
“He’s giving me a great problem, if you like! Players who score goals and have that enthusiasm and energy… we want to play a pressing game and there are no frills [with him].
“If you asked him at half-time to run over to the cricket ground and get us a drink, he’d do it, because he’s that type of lad and that’s the type that has been brought through the academy, and these are the boys you love to see do well.
“If they give you reasons to like them and they give you reasons to play them, then you’ll have to play them.”
The fact Solskjaer has mentioned Elanga when discussing his first-team plans only highlights the scale of progress he has made in such a short time — and the Norwegian clearly sees a scenario where the 19-year-old fits into his plans for the forthcoming season.
There is nothing to suggest that he will get the same access as Rashford did when he burst onto the scene in 2015. But there is an air of anticipation and excitement as to what the promising striker can contribute this season.
With Cavani, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial all currently ahead of Elanga, he will need to wait patiently for his next chance to make his mark.
However, Rashford’s potential surgery on his shoulder could open up a spot on the left side of Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 formation and Elanga will no doubt be gunning to put his name in the hat to deputise.
United next face Preston in their pre-season schedule and, if he gets his name on the scoresheet score at Deepdale, the “problem” of where Elanga fits into Solskjaer’s plans will become a more urgent topic of conversation.
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