Elanga is a force to be reckoned with.
Ralf Rangnick used the opening paragraph of his programme notes to call for more aggression from Manchester United, and if he used Anthony Elanga as an example in midweek, he did it again against Watford.
When Elanga was involved in United’s game versus the Hornets, the intensity of the game increased dramatically. When Elanga went on the ball and tried to make things happen, it injected enthusiasm into a performance that was at times lacklustre.
The teenager has been a super-sub for the previous week, scoring off the bench against Leeds and Atletico Madrid, but he deserved to start, and this was perhaps his best performance when he was in the lineup from the start.
Elanga talked with a rising sense of confidence after his goal at the Wanda Metropolitano, and it showed in his performance against Old Trafford, not just on the ball but also off it. He was significantly more active with his body language than his teammates, demanding the ball and overall appearing more interested.
Rangnick has been harping on United’s lack of aggression for the past two months, and little has changed. It’s simple to play with that intensity against Leeds and Atletico Madrid, but it’s far more difficult against Watford at home.
Elanga once again set the bar high for his teammates to follow. Rangnick surely shattered a few egos when he told the rest of his team to play like a 19-year-old in midweek, but this performance indicated they didn’t listen.
By the time the clock struck 20 minutes, the mood at Old Trafford seemed to have been set. Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo had both squandered two great chances at that moment.
United started the game well, but failing to capitalise on opportunities has been a recurring problem under Rangnick, and this may have been their most wasteful afternoon yet.
When Ronaldo should have scored, he hit the post, and Fernandes struck Foster when he should have scored. In the second half, Ronaldo had half the goal to aim for from eight yards, but he scuffed a shot straight at Elanga, who had just lost a fantastic chance of his own minutes before, blazing a shot wide from a similar distance.
Ronaldo tried to ride a harsh challenge from Ben Foster but then found the angle against him, which summed up United’s problems in front of goal. If he had gone down, he would have almost certainly received a penalty. Fernandes could only head the resultant cross over the bar in the end.
Watford grew into the game as a result of squandered chances in the first half. After the interval, more chances went begging, although not at the same rate. The visitors had become accustomed to their surroundings, and United was having difficulty breaking through their defence.
Rangnick used his favourite phrase, control, when asked what United needed to achieve against Watford before kick-off at Old Trafford.
United needed to dominate possession as well as Watford’s counter-attacks, according to the German. According to Rangnick, this was their biggest weapon, and despite their evident flaws, they do have a dynamic front three who can be dangerous on their day, and a trip to Old Trafford is a day for most flaky players to shine.
If there was one positive to take away from this performance, it was how well United controlled the Hornets. In the United goal, David de Gea was virtually entirely unemployed, while Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane scarcely broke a sweat.
Rangnick felt confident enough in United’s control to send both of his more defensive midfielders off in pursuit of a win, with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford replacing Nemanja Matic and Fred.
Formation that is adaptable
When the United team arrived, it was unclear which formation they would use for the second time this week. Rangnick had already stated that there would be rotation, so if the XI in Madrid had been a puzzle, this was little more reasonable.
The biggest controversy was on Paul Pogba’s role in a 4-2-3-1 and whether he should play on the left or in a midfield diamond, but in the end, he had such a free role that he practically played both positions, as well as upfront.
United appeared to be playing in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation at times, with Pogba and Fernandes sharing the left flank, but they also appeared to be playing in Rangnick’s preferred 4-2-2-2 formation at times, with the Frenchman pushed up alongside Ronaldo and attempting to prevent Watford from playing out.
Despite the flexibility, United was not hampered in any way. They never appeared to be out of balance, and the movement created more room. Unfortunately, United took advantage of the problems it was giving Watford early on, and it cost them dearly.
Rangnick made a lovely gesture.
As the sides stepped out at Old Trafford, a few Ukraine flags flew, and after United and Watford had stood for the dismal Premier League, the players gathered around a banner with the peace sign and the word spelled out in many languages.
Rangnick had conceived the idea, and while he stood with his players holding the banner at first, Fernandes waved after the Watford players in a pre-match show of unity.
After receiving justified criticism on Friday for informing a fan that they don’t get involved in geopolitical situations, this was a far more positive answer that reflected well on Rangnick and his players, who had been enthusiastic about the notion.