Was this the attitude Cristiano Ronaldo demanded?
Whatever about refusing to accept criticism, Manchester United’s new generation refused to accept anything other than victory.
It was certainly the response, and the result, Ralf Rangnick and his team needed.
On a night when they were often second best to Brentford, and mere days after Ronaldo gave such a pointed interview about the attitude of younger players, three of the club’s youth graduates scored to secure a crucial 3-1 win in the race for fourth. The table looks that bit better for United. The mood is that bit improved.
That’s the spirit of youth, that feels all the more special when another new academy player scores. The 19-year-old Anthony Elanga was no mere detail in adding to United’s long list of historic teenage goalscorers, though. He offered the most important moment of the game at Brentford Community Stadium, brilliantly improvising on a hopeful cross to give United a lead they scarcely deserved.
Neither he or the team looked back. They were instead racing away, especially for the two moments that clinched it. Mason Greenwood slid in the second on the break before substitute Marcus Rashford thrashed in to score his first goal since October. The angry nature of the finish made it seem like Rashford was proving a point.
It was still nothing like Ronaldo’s own response on being taken off for Harry Maguire in the minutes between the second and third.
When the Portuguese’s number came up, he petulantly put his hands to his hips, before throwing a little strop when sat on the bench. Rangnick was seen conspicuously leaning over to say something to his most famous player as his teammates celebrated that fine third goal.
Was this the attitude required?
For Ronaldo’s part, he had offered one of the touches of the game, through a brilliant lay-off with that granite chest to send Bruno through on goal. He squared for Greenwood to secure the points.
Elanga, however, had made it possible.
It was all the more notable, since this was no easy picking off of a team way below United, despite what the final score suggested.
There were so many moments in the first half when a final result like that seemed impossible.
Brentford will ask themselves how they weren’t out of sight, let alone how they didn’t score. The answer is the brilliance of De Gea, but also their own bad finishing.
There is so much to admire about Thomas Frank’s side, particularly the way they just bombard teams to virtually push them back to their own goalline. There were so many spells, especially in the first half, when United were under siege in the manner they should be subjecting to opposition sides. One issue is that can be so frenetic that it can inevitably come at the cost of some finesse.
They’re almost trying to force the ball over the line.
While that is fair when it comes to some of those more intense bombardments, it’s a little harder to square with easier finishes along the ground.
Mathias Jensen will think it was one of those nights, but he had two of those misses.
The midfielder was twice through on De Gea’s goalkeeper, only for the goalkeeper to save. It was superb instinct but Jensen could have done so much better.
This was one of the main explanations for the result, though.
Brentford had a much better idea of football but, ultimately, technically inferior players.
That’s really what it comes down to. It’s that simple.
In the meantime, there are few things as uplifting for a club as the simple joy of a young player scoring.
How Rangnick needed it. How well Elanga took it.
It was brilliant opportunism and inventiveness as the teenager took the sting out of a cross, only for it to look like it might have bounced up too high and too close to Jonas Lossl. Elanga instead displayed swiftness of mind as well as movement, to head over the goalkeeper and in.
United at least continue to produce talent. They also continue to hang on in there.
The performance was again lacking, as were all the pressing principles you would associate with Rangnick.
The attitude wasn’t lacking, though.
The new generation gave Ronaldo their response.