Sofyan Amrabat: The real deal or another World Cup flash in the pan – opinion
Shortly after retiring, Sir Alex Ferguson reflected on a few of his signings and expressed a hint regret regarding buying players based on their performances in tournaments. The legendary former Manchester United manager remarked:
“I was always wary of buying players on the back of good tournament performances. I did it at the 1996 European Championship, which prompted me to move for Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. Both had excellent runs in that tournament but I didn’t receive the kind of value their countries did that summer … sometimes players get themselves motivated and prepared for World Cups and European Championships and after that there can be a levelling off.”
The great Scotsman isn’t wrong, is he? I mean, can anyone tell me where James Rodriguez is these days? I’ll wait.
Of course, there are exceptions, such as Goncalo Ramos, who had a stellar 26 goals in all competitions for Benfica this season on top of a brilliant World Cup hat-trick against Switzerland in December. Still, it’s a risky roll of the dice when a club identifies and signs a player just because he stood out in an international tournament, which brings us to the latest flavour of the month–and latest name to be linked with a move to Manchester United–Moroccan midfielder, Sofyan Amrabat.
Amrabat became a household name among football fans during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The 26-year-old’s energy, fight, and composure in midfield had United fans salivating for Erik ten Hag and co to bring Amrabat to Old Trafford as an upgrade on Fred and Scott McTominay. The Moroccan was impressive; who can forget him tracking back and keeping pace with Kylian Mbappe to lunge in with a crunching tackle and deny the French attacker the chance to square the ball? Amrabat was a defensive force of nature in the tournament, overall, owning the middle of the pitch as Morocco’s defensive midfielder and making tackles left and right to win the ball and launch an attack.
While Morocco deployed Amrabat as a defensive midfielder, relying on him to patrol their defensive third and disrupt the opposition’s attack, he has a bit more license to get forward with Fiorentina and sees a lot of the ball in the opposition half. Amrabat’s passing range goes under the radar, in fact, as many think he’s a defensive-minded midfielder based on his World Cup performances. The Serie A club relies on Amrabat to find his teammates higher up the pitch, as well, with the Moroccan actually finishing the season with an average of 4.6 accurate long balls per match, which ranked sixth in the league. Last year, Amrabat had a pass accuracy of 88.8% of his attempted 67.12 passes per 90, which was in the 95th percentile, while his 7.91 progressive passes per 90 was in the 92nd percentile.
If Amrabat’s passing in Serie A was much better than his defensive output, why was he such a defensive general in Morocco’s midfield, but not Fiorentina’s? Well, the answer is a bit full-circle and has more to do with Morocco’s level on the international stage compared to the opposition they faced in the World Cup. To Morocco’s credit, they exceeded everyone’s expectations by making it to the semi-final and jumping from 22nd to 11th in FIFA’s ranking during the tournament. However, much like how smaller clubs play against top clubs, Morocco was very defensive and sat deep, hoping to win the ball and punish teams with their counter attack. Such an approach will magnify a player’s defensive actions. That’s not to say Amrabat isn’t deserving of praise for his World Cup heroics, but that Morocco’s reliance on him to patrol the midfield raised his defensive baseline for the tournament.
So what does all this mean as far as Amrabat being a World Cup wonder versus a consistent midfielder is concerned? Well, it means that Sofyan Amrabat is a solid all-around midfielder who can do a little of everything, but particularly excels at anticipating danger to win back the ball and using his passing range to pick out teammates in advanced positions. You might be thinking, “Manchester United already have that in Casemiro,” and you’d be correct. However, United are seriously lacking depth in the number six role and the Brazilian missed eight games through suspension, leaving a hole in Erik ten Hag’s midfield. Having someone like Ambrabat, who can rotate with Casemiro and even play alongside him in certain matches wouldn’t go amiss. Furthermore, United played the most matches of any club in Europe last season, which means having depth in the squad is vital moving forward.
Ten Hag seems to prefer signing players he knows and trusts, bringing both Antony and Lisandro Martinez with him from Ajax and signing Mason Mount, who he scouted and admired during the English midfielder’s loan spell in the Eredivisie with Vitesse. Amrabat fits this mould, as well, having worked under ten Hag during the Dutchman’s time at the helm of FC Utrecht.
The issue, though, is ten Hag’s transfer budget and United’s priority positions. Having already spent a fair bit on Mason Mount, United are still in need of a goalkeeper following David de Gea’s departure as a free agent and it’s generally accepted that the Red Devils are in desperate need of a clinical striker. Would ten Hag opt to further strengthen his midfield by approving a €30 million transfer for Sofyan Amrabat? If United raise funds by selling the likes of Dean Henderson, Anthony Elanga, Eric Bailly, Fred, Alex Telles, and Donny van de Beek, then Amrabat would be seen as an absolute steal. Ten Hag’s hands are tied for the time being, though, but crazier things have happened during the summer transfer window, meaning all bets are off at this point and Sofyan Amrabat could very well be a United player by the end of the summer.
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