With the season opener against arch rivals Leeds looming large, there is still quite a bit of squad movement expected to happen before Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s personnel is finalized for the 2021/22 season.
Manchester United were very active in the first month of the summer transfer window. Adding players of Jadon Sancho’s and Raphael Varane’s pedigree to the fold is undoubtedly going to take United’s best XI up a level. World class, starting quality reinforcements were just what the doctor ordered for Solskjær’s side after once again coming up just short on silverware last season.
Now, with pre-season well underway and — as of right now — just one official tune up game remaining, it’s mostly all about fine tuning the depth. Yes, United are still reportedly after some players in the market — namely a defensive midfielder. But those moves are unlikely to happen before the curtain raiser at Old Trafford on Aug. 14.
Solskjær will have to work with what he has at his disposal right now, and that is still a rather formidable squad. The one downside? The vast majority of United’s starters have just returned for pre-season on Monday, Aug. 1 — meaning that the Leeds fixture may very well come too soon for most.
Looking to avoid a false start reminiscent of last seasons home opening loss to Crystal Palace, the United boss could — and arguably should — hand big opportunities to impress to some of the players who will have had a full pre-season period under their belts come opening day. One of the names atop that list is Anthony Elanga. The young Swede’s performances against QPR and Brentford have given the boss a positive selection headache.
And the headache goes past just the Leeds game. As a 19-year-old, Elanga is evidently ready — both physically and ability wise — to play regular minutes at the first team level. But will he get that at United, with Solskjær building a squad that will be primed to compete for the top honours? That remains to be seen, despite his pre-season showings giving a very good account of himself.
The decision is not made any easier for the manager when you take into consideration the availabilities of Daniel James and Amad. The only certainty here is that the squad is not big enough for all three of them right now. United have attacking options coming out of their ears by October when Marcus Rashford returns and someone will likely have to seek regular minutes elsewhere. But who will it be?
Anthony ElangaEmbed from Getty Images
Before pre-season, Elanga was amongst the sure-fire names set for a loan spell away. Enjoying a promising breakout at the end of last campaign, the Swedish youth international bagged his first goal for the club in the final game of the season against Wolves. A lovely headed finish after losing his marker inside the box raised some eyebrows. That’s when everyone realized Elanga is not just a one dimensional threat.
Known for his pace and beating players off the dribble, Elanga has played all over at youth levels — showing the ability and poise to contribute from all across the front line. Attentive to detail, Solskjær took note. After the 2-2 draw against Brentford when Elanga scored a wonderful volley, the United boss admitted that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell Elanga that there are not going to be enough minutes for him to stay at the club this season.
“If they give you reasons to like them and they give you reasons to play them, then you’ll have to play them,” Solskjær told MUTV.
Elanga has long been a standout prospect at all youth levels. But at one point, you would have thought that nagging injuries would’ve halted his progress somewhat. Well, credit to the player and his diligence to get back on the pitch — they didn’t. And at 19, he is right where he is supposed to be.
Over the last two seasons, Elanga scored 16 goals between the U18s and the U23s — showing that he, like a few of his other teammates — have far outgrown the youth level of competition. Now, the biggest question is — with the amount of traffic on United’s left hand side — will the Swede have enough minutes to contribute and continue his progress?
Rashford, as the first option, will return from his shoulder operation around mid-October time. Sancho is by consensus capable of playing on both flanks. And — as of right now — Anthony Martial is not linked with a move away. With the Frenchman’s seniority and a point to prove after a disastrous last campaign, he will likely remain ahead of Elanga in the pecking order.
So, the verdict? While it is clear that if Elanga stayed and got his chances, he would be able to contribute. At 19, he needs regularity — and preferably in England. As a result, a loan move away is probably the best case scenario for the Swede to keep polishing his skills ahead of a return next summer and a real fight for a spot in the side.
Daniel JamesEmbed from Getty Images
The Welsh wide man scored five times and chipped in with two assists last season in a campaign that was probably somewhat underwhelming from a personal standpoint. In and out of the squad, the 23-year-old featured 26 times in all competitions. That was a significant drop off from his debut season when James played 33 times in the Premier League alone, but probably a reasonable amount of game time — in hindsight — for a player of his quality.
It’s important not to forget that when United signed James from Swansea, 25 to 30 games in a season was supposed to be his usage. But transfer window incompetences of the past threw the pacey Welshman right into the deep waters. All things considered, he has handled himself quite well. Of course, sometimes fans would have liked more from him. But United fans do have a tendency of disregarding certain things when setting their expectations for players and managers.
On paper, James’ ceiling is nowhere near that of Amad and even Elanga. United’s No. 21 will turn 24 in November and you have to be realistic with how much you still expect him to improve. At this point, James is the closest out of the trio in this article to being the finished product. But with all of that said, he is by no means a bad footballer. Quite the contrary, actually.
James has a particular set of skills that suit certain games and he has proved to be an asset for United on multiple occasions since joining. The more tactical games when United have chances to break at speed. The games where defensive help is needed from the wingers. Or when the intensity of the press needs to be the highest. That’s when James thrives. And there is room for such players in a squad that wants to win the highest honors.
James comes across as a character who loves playing for the club and Solskjær without a doubt makes him feel valuable — as he should. Winning teams are not solely centered around stars. Famously, the winningest moments are often brought by those who are just needed to be stars in their roles. And if James is happy to do that, there is a place for him at United — making him an asset worth keeping.
AmadEmbed from Getty Images
The price for which United acquired the services of the then 18-year-old Amad (could rise up to ~£34 million) suggests that he is regarded as one of the more talented players at the club. From his debut, you could see the star potential. And not only that. Also striking was the good head on his shoulders. The high pressure environment at United doesn’t seem to phase him.
Having just competed in the Olympic Games with Ivory Coast — and reaching the quarter-finals — Amad will physically be more ready than most to contribute upon his return next week. That was his pre-season. And donning the No. 10 shirt, he showed more glimpses of what he is capable of.
Obviously still very raw, Amad has natural ability to play football oozing out of him. The 19-year-old got an opportunity to feature more regularly at the end of last season — just like Elanga — and he impressed. The swagger with which he dribbles and beats opponents and the on-ball technique makes players like him stand out and look right at home in a United shirt. His low centre of gravity enabled him to ride tackles and not be affected by the physicality of the English game.
Amad looks the most ready to contribute right now because of the way he thrives in tight spaces and in looking for those line breaking passes. He wants to play quick, intricate, one-touch football. He doesn’t need much room to make something happen.
There is only a limited amount of games in a season where James’ skillset allows him to thrive. Elanga’s long-term role and best position are yet to be determined. As is his ability to play against low blocks. With Amad, you know what you are getting and that is a player who already looks capable of coming up with moments. And football is a moments game.
There is also more room for Amad in the squad when you assess United positionally. The left is jam packed. On the right, it’s Sancho and Mason Greenwood — who is gradually moving closer in to the centre. There should be opportunities for the Ivorian to play. United play around 25 Premier League games a season in which having a wildcard like Amad to either start or come off the bench could come in handy. And with fans back at the Theatre of Dreams, visiting teams will likely once again be a little more timid.
Ultimately, it will come down to Solskjær’s assessment of Amad’s current ability to contribute and where the Norwegian sees that fit. But United’s No. 19 looks like the type of talent that would benefit more from being in the first-team environment at the highest level rather than looking for minutes elsewhere. He is the type of talent that game time should be afforded to with one eye on the future and plenty of games and rotation to go around.
Come the end of August, it will likely come down to Amad and Elanga in regards to who stays and who goes on loan for the season. There is certainly a role there for one of them to play. And all things considered, Amad simply seems more suited to it and would benefit more from it right now.