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Anthony Elanga: The making of Man Utd's new teenage hero

The clock had just ticked past 4:00 am on the morning of November 22, and Anthony Elanga was pulling into the car park at Manchester United’s training ground.

Such a sight might have been a surprise to the security team at the club's Carrington base, had the teenager not done exactly the same three weeks previously.

Elanga, you see, is meticulous in his preparation for matches, and with early-morning flights to Spain and Italy scheduled ahead of UEFA Youth League ties against Villarreal and Atalanta, respectively, he was keen to fit in a full hour-and-a-half gym session before the team's departure.

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As such, he travelled from the house he shares with his family in Hyde, Greater Manchester, to Carrington in the early hours to ensure he was in peak condition for the youth-team games.

It is that mentality that has seen Elanga go from playing in Youth League games to scoring in Champions League knockout ties in the space of just three months, with the winger one of the few bright spots for United in what has been a difficult season.

Elanga's equaliser against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metripolitano in the first leg of the last-16 clash has given Ralf Rangnick's side real hope of progressing to the quarter-finals, and the Sweden Under-21 international is likely to be involved in the return fixture at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Elanga's elite mentality and willingness to do whatever it takes to make it at the professional level comes from watching his father, Joseph, ply his trade as a defender for Malmo.

He learned exactly what was required, while a visit from his father's then-team-mate, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to his childhood home allowed Elanga to pick the brains of a player who would go onto become one of the best in the world over the next couple of decades.

Joseph, along with Elanga's mother, Daniella, ensured that their son was brought up to be a focused and well-rounded individual who does not get complacent. They certainly seem to have succeeded, with Elanga described by those who know him as being polite and a pleasure to be around.

Elanga's footballing journey began at the academies of IF Elfsborg and then Malmo, where he played until the age of 11, when his mother decided that the family were moving to England.

Following that relocation, Elanga joined Hattersley FC in Tameside, and he impressed coaches there within 10 minutes of his first training session. After one full season, he was named as his team's Player of the Year, having scored 17 goals and laid on 27 assists in just 14 games.

It is hardly surprising, then, with numbers like that that United acted quickly to enrol Elanga into their academy at the age of 12, and he has impressed every coach he has worked under at the club since.

He would regularly watch videos of the world’s best players and look for ways to replicate them, especially his idol Thierry Henry.

Neil Wood, Neil Ryan and Colin Little have all been instrumental in his development, with the latter said to have been a ‘great support’ to all the young forwards at the club.

The energetic, pacy winger won the Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Year award in 2020, but suffered shoulder injury in early 2021 that could have set his development back.

Instead, Elanga spent the time in the gym bulking up, so as to ensure he was stronger upon his return to action. He repeated those individual sessions ahead of the current campaign.

He was eventually handed a senior debut by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in May 2021 off the back of a recommendation from former first-team coach Kieran McKenna, and having got a taste of professional action, Elanga spent the summer working to improve himself further.

The 19-year-old worked with a private coach, focusing specifically on explosive pace and jump height as he aimed to improve his heading ability. Justin Cochrane, United's head of player development and coaching, also spent time with Elanga, working on different types of finishing.

“It wasn’t just me (who helped)," Cochrane tells GOAL. "I think it's the staff who have worked with him throughout the years.

“He’s a fine young man first and foremost. He’s got talent and ability and the right character. I see his directness, you see what he’s doing in the first team and he did that previously in the youth set up. In the training sessions I saw that potential, and this is just the start. We all hope he’ll continue to impress."

That directness caught the eye of the first-team coaching staff in a pre-season friendly against QPR, when Elanga came off the bench and scored. One member of staff made the prediction following the match at Loftus Road that he would break into the first team this season.

And they were not wrong.

It did, however, need Ralf Rangnick to arrive for Elanga to truly get a chance.

He was given limited opportunities under Solskjaer, playing predominantly for the U23s during the first half of the season. That led Elanga to look for loan options ahead of the January transfer window, and there was interest in him from a Premier League side and plenty of Championship clubs, but Rangnick persuaded him to stay.

“He came on against [Crystal] Palace, and the week after that I told him: 'Listen, I want you to stay, I want to see how you do in training and in the games until the closure of the transfer window',” Rangnick said.

“Right now he has shown what is possible in football with the right mentality and the right approach to go into games. This is exactly what he did and what he always does in every training session.”

Bruno Fernandes is said to have been a big support for Elanga since he broke into the first team, and Cristiano Ronaldo has also provided advice for the teenager on shooting technique and mentality.

That mentality - which sees him follow a "very set routine" before every game, including a visit to a private cryotherapy centre - as well as his talent is what has seen Elanga break through this season.

His goal against Atletico was described by the player himself as being a "dream come true", and early signs are it will be the first of many memorable moments in a United shirt for the young Swede.

Do not expect him to stop those early morning gym sessions if they do arrive, though.