Anthony Elanga puts Manchester United on path to win at Brentford

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<span>Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock


Not for the first time and almost certainly not for the last, this mercurial bunch of Manchester United players served up a night’s work that defied cogent analysis. They should have been buried by Brentford in the first half but turned up after the interval and found the kind of clinical edge that ought to have been deployed against them earlier on. More than that, they showed flickers of the football Ralf Rangnick has made his hallmark: their second and third goals came from fast, intelligent transitions that swamped the home side’s defence, suggesting they at least have the capacity to implement their interim manager’s vision in thrilling bursts.

Brentford were left to curse the fact that, just as they were exposed repeatedly during the second period, they had torn United apart on the break before half-time. Mathias Jensen missed two gilt-edged chances and was not alone in being wayward: Thomas Frank’s players gave their visitors a lesson in wild-eyed intensity during that spell but were ultimately schooled in how to seize chances with aplomb.

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That was exactly what Anthony Elanga did, changing the complexion with United’s second opening of note. The first, soon after the restart, had seen Cristiano Ronaldo head against the crossbar and the sense was that Rangnick had sent his team back out with more urgency on the ball. Elanga, a Swedish-born academy product who turns 20 in April, had kept his place after a bright showing against Aston Villa and initially found the going tough. But in the 55th minute he was put in by a phenomenally perceptive pass from Fred, whose angled clip over the Brentford defence found a well-timed run inside from the left.

Elanga controlled it and nodded past Jonas Lössl, who might have offered heavier resistance, as the ball sat up. It was a smart piece of finishing but Fred’s contribution could not have offered more of a departure from the functional, unambitious possession that had infected United’s play until then. Passer and recipient were in perfect sync and had picked an opportune time to click.

No such combinations were evident in an opening 45 minutes that threw up a familiar list of ills. Brentford looked hungrier, more effective in exploiting space and certainly better organised. They were happy to operate on the counter, presumably in the knowledge that United looked a mess out of possession, and had plenty of chances to make the post-match analysis rather different.

Jensen missed the best of them in near-identical situations, both times thwarted by David de Gea’s foot after attempting to finish too deliberately when sent clear. The same player turned provider for a shot that Christian Nørgaard flashed over from close in, while an unwitting block from Alex Telles prevented Mads Bech Sorensen from crashing home inside the six-yard box during the same flurry of pressure. The half passed United by, as too many tend to, and there should be no illusions that more practised opposition would have made them pay.

Between Ronaldo’s looping effort onto the woodwork and Elanga’s opener, Jensen was sent away again but shot straight at De Gea from the hardest of his opportunities. From then on United took charge: Scott McTominay’s influence grew and he forced the unconvincing Lössl into a bundled save before playing a crucial part in Mason Greenwood, who had previously been anonymous, scoring a superbly-worked second.

United have often been correctly derided as a team of disparate individuals but this was an example of collective attacking brilliance, executed in numbers and at high speed. Ronaldo met a floated McTominay pass with a chested touch on halfway that, at once rock-solid and trampoline-like, put Bruno Fernandes through. Fernandes had begun his run 15 yards inside United’s half at the very moment McTominay played the ball: nobody could catch him and, from a scoring position, he passed unselfishly for the supporting Greenwood to tap in.

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Ronaldo threw a minor tantrum when he was replaced by Harry Maguire, although the decision seemed sensible given he had missed the Villa match with a thigh injury. Marcus Rashford came on for Greenwood at the same time and quickly added to the good news with his first goal since 30 October. It might have been the most pleasing of the three, coming after McTominay stopped a Brentford attack and then burst past two players before nicking the ball right to Fernandes. Rashford ran on to the subsequent pass and lifted high into Lössl’s net.

Ivan Toney prodded in a late consolation that was the least Brentford deserved and reminded United that all had not been especially well for long periods here. Brentford have lost five in six but the good work of their early weeks continues to give them a cushion against the drop; for Rangnick, the knowledge United had been let off the hook could meet with at least the glimpse of a more coherent future.

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