Amad’s Manchester United journey – a chance finally grabbed and what he still needs to do

Andy Mitten

The reaction of Manchester United’s players to Amad scoring against Liverpool in Sunday’s epic FA Cup game was joyous for several reasons. There is the obvious one — a last minute extra-time winner in front of the Stretford End to make it 4-3 against Liverpool was the best moment of the season. Does anything more need saying?

Then there is Amad and his story. The 21-year-old hasn’t had it easy, both in life and since he left Atalanta for United in January 2021. Serious injuries at the cruellest points, Covid-19, language issues, the weight of a significant transfer fee, being exposed on loan in an Old Firm game and a lack of chances have made his journey a difficult one.

At United, he’s found himself unfortunate as Alejandro Garnacho has moved to his position on the right, where Amad has also been up against Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Antony, Marcus Rashford, Facundo Pellistri, Omari Forson and even Bruno Fernandes in recent seasons.

Yet the 21-year-old Ivorian is a popular member of United’s squad, polite and respected for his personality and talent, for working hard and training fantastically even when up against aggressive defenders including Lisandro Martinez and Harry Maguire. For listening to deep chats from Erik ten Hag (one last week before Liverpool), Mitchell van der Gaag and Darren Fletcher about where he needs to improve his game — and then implementing their advice.

United’s players celebrate with Amad – before he’s sent off for his celebrations (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The coaches notice the details. After United equalised against Fulham at Old Trafford in February, Amad sprinted back but was unsure how to defend in the situation. He had done the same against Nottingham Forest in his only other league performance of the season. Both times, United had equalised late on. Both times, United lost the game 2-1. It was different against Liverpool. Amad sprinted back after Marcus Rashford’s 112th-minute equaliser made it 3-3.

“At that key moment, he has to decide whether to become a right-back or where else to defend,” explains United’s technical director Fletcher, who has helped bridge the gap to the first team for players such as Amad, Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo. “Amad recognised what he had to do. The intensity, attitude and work rate is there. The off-the-ball stuff is really important. Against Liverpool, he showed he’d taken on all our feedback. He made more runs, he was more elusive as well as getting across his attacking qualities.

“He’s needed to be patient,” says Fletcher. “He needed a moment and hopefully Sunday was that moment.”

And then he scored the winner. Whatever happens in his career, he’ll always be remembered for putting the ball in the net from Garnacho’s pass — and he’ll be forgiven for receiving a second yellow card and being sent off for taking his shirt off in celebration.

United agreed to sign Amad Diallo, who prefers to be called Amad, on October 5, 2020. The club had known about him through their Italian scouting network. There was a lot of hype around Amad for what he had done at youth level with Atalanta and United kept an eye on him, with several scouts watching him play Manchester City’s under-19s in the UEFA Youth League on October 22, 2019.

In Manchester, Amad, playing in the No 10 role, terrorised a City team including Cole Palmer and Taylor Harwood-Bellis in a 3-1 win, where he assisted one and scored the third. Atalanta beat City again for good measure a few weeks later.

United’s senior scouts were hugely impressed. John Murtough, who had set up United’s pan-European academy scouting network in 2016, gathered the information. Though Amad is small in stature, head scout Jim Lawlor told Murtough that the player was a real talent and that United needed to sign him.

It wasn’t so simple in the post-Brexit world. United felt there would be an issue getting a work permit since the immigration points system was changing. Amad needed to show he had played enough games for Atalanta to get a permit, but it was all achievable. Matt Judge did the negotiations and Murtough went to Bergamo to see the player and talk to Luca Picassi, the CEO, to work out the mechanics of a deal. There was no issue with Amad, who was excited to join United.

But would he stay at Atalanta, with their excellent record of finding young players and developing them? How many minutes would he get in a team that was playing Champions League football? Then Covid struck, with Bergamo initially the worst-hit city in Europe.

Murtough had to quarantine for two weeks at home after his final trip to Bergamo in late 2020. United’s scouts in Italy, Kevin Hughes, Marco De Sisti and Cristian Ercolani, also helped. The deal progressed once Amad sent Murtough a picture from outside the British embassy in Rome — he had his papers.

The fee was initially about €20million (£17.2m; $21.6m), with a lot of performance-related add-ons should he be successful at Old Trafford. United have a good relationship with Atalanta, which came in handy when they wanted to sign Rasmus Hojlund in 2023 in the face of strong interest from Paris Saint-Germain.

“Straightaway you could see the high level of technical ability,” says Fletcher. “Amad’s first touch is immaculate, there’s balance. There was a lack of game understanding as is normal in young players, so we knew it was a pathway for him, a journey.

“We always have this with young players and there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. Do you bring them into the club and adapt them to the club so people can get used to them? Or keep them at their club — in Amad’s case, Atalanta? But he wasn’t really playing there. You’re always weighing up what the best plan of action is for the player.

“With Amad, there was a feeling of, ‘Get him in, Manchester United have signed him, let’s get him around the first team straightaway and give him six months to see where he’s at, what level he has and what the next steps should be in his development’.”

United’s coaches began to scrutinise Amad and help develop details of his game. They looked at his technical ability in tight areas and how he dealt with the ball. They did that in small training games, knowing that ultimately it must transcend to 11-a-side games for the first team. They looked at his strengths and what he needed to work on. A lot of it is game understanding, which comes with experience. A player can’t be expected to read a game at 18 like he would at 28 — though Mainoo is pushing back against that idea.

Amad in his time with Atalanta (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

There’s a significant jump from youth to first-team football. Part of it is physical development, part how to play: when to track back, when to make runs without the ball, movement and fitting in with how the first-team manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at that time, wants to play.

It wasn’t easy for the player. He couldn’t speak English when he arrived and he was away from family in a world where there were still significant Covid restrictions. As with Garnacho, who had arrived six months before him, his normal assimilation into a new club, city and country was hit by Covid bubbles and social distancing.

Amad was considered quiet and polite. French-speaking players Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly went out of their way to take him under their wing and help integrate him into the squad.

Just two months after signing, Amad was back in northern Italy to make his United debut at the home of Juventus. The Italian club hosted a Europa League “home” game for Real Sociedad against United. Amad came on for Mason Greenwood after 83 minutes with United leading 3-0 in a 4-0 win. In the home leg, he played for 31 minutes. In the next round at home to AC Milan, he replaced Anthony Martial at half-time. Five minutes later, he scored a header from a Fernandes assist.

“A great header,” says Fletcher. “He’s a technical player who likes receiving the ball in the pockets and tight spaces. He likes dribbling, playing one-twos and running, but something he also has is runs off the ball. Against Milan, he darted in from wide across the line and he’s decent in the air for his size. You can be good in the air without being tall in terms of your technique.”

Amad showed flashes of quality in games until the end of the 2020-21 season. That summer, United signed Jadon Sancho for his position on the right. Greenwood was also playing in that position. The consensus was for Amad to go on loan to accumulate as many minutes as possible to accelerate his development.

Five clubs were interested. United and Amad agreed to a loan with Dutch giants Feyenoord for the 2021-22 season. Unfortunately, he tore a muscle in his quad the day before he was due to go — an injury that would keep him out for four months. When he came back, he went to Rangers on loan instead. It didn’t work.

Loan deals have changed. The days of Sir Alex Ferguson pulling a player into his office, having called a favour in, to say “you’re going to Preston, son” have long gone. Agents are involved and both clubs have to be aligned on the same page. United need their loan players to play.

Amad did play at Rangers. He started and scored on his debut away at Ross County. Then he started away at Celtic in his second game but Rangers were 3-0 down at half-time, the right-winger was subbed and he became a scapegoat among some fans. Amad wouldn’t start another game there.

It was uphill from that point at Ibrox, though Fletcher, who watches all the loan players and feeds the information back to the club and to the players, maintains that he did well in the few minutes that he got in subsequent games.

Amad returned to Old Trafford, where Ten Hag was now manager. It was decided that another loan was needed — ideally to an English club so he would keep improving his English and learn what it’s like to play in this country. He went to Sunderland in England’s second tier to experience playing in front of regular 40,000 crowds in a football-mad city under a well-respected manager, Tony Mowbray, who has a long record of promoting young talent.

Mowbray had worked with Liverpool’s Harvey Elliot and suggested the pair were of a similar level. Amad started as a sub at Sunderland for his first few games, then did well enough to become a starter. United feel that Mowbray did everything he said he would with Amad, in terms of where and how he would play.

United felt he would do well at Sunderland but they didn’t think he would do as well as he did: fans’ player of the season as he helped them to the play-offs, where they were defeated by Luton Town. They say you shouldn’t fall in love with a loan player, but the Sunderland fans did as he played 42 games and scored 14 goals.

“Amad was, by far, our most liked loan player since we came down from the Premier League,” says Ben Hardie from Sunderland’s ALS fanzine. “He didn’t break into the form he became notable for for a couple of months, but he became the best player in the Championship outside the clubs that got promoted.

“When we had an injury crisis towards the end of the season, with no strikers or centre-backs, Amad was crucial to us reaching the play-offs. In every transfer window since, there are rumours of him returning. Probably wishful thinking. When he scored against Liverpool last week, you’d have thought he was someone who played hundreds of games for Sunderland or come from our academy.“

Amad celebrates scoring for Sunderland in their play-off semi-final (Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)

United included him in this campaign’s pre-season, but Amad was injured against Arsenal in New Jersey in what was the club’s best pre-season performance. That was another setback because there was no shortage of clubs wanting to loan him for this season. Several were in France, several, including Leicester City, were in England. He could go nowhere.

The knee injury kept him out until December when the plan was to allow Facundo Pellistri to go on loan and Amad to take his place. Pellistri is playing every week at Granada in La Liga, but Amad has played 98 first-team minutes all season, a third of them against Liverpool.

Amad was training very well in recent weeks, though it was odd that he deleted all references to Manchester United on his social media accounts, leaving just a few pictures from his time at Sunderland. Was it frustration at a lack of first-team chances? The club accept that young players sometimes act in haste, it’s no big deal. Footballers wanting to play football is not a problem. Amad later explained that he had deactivated his social media for a month to concentrate on Ramadan.

“Stop the hatred, there’s nothing wrong with what I did,” he later explained. “It’s holy month for me and social media is a place where are bad things for me to see during fasting.”

Fletcher is close to Amad and is an experienced former pro who can advise and encourage. He is also a father of two footballers himself of similar age to Amad and also has twins who age 18 months are a similar age to Amad’s own child.

Fletcher has no doubts about Amad’s ability on the ball, he wants to make him (and other young players) more reliable when they don’t have the ball since no top team can afford to carry any player as has happened in the past.

United’s job is to guide Amad from being a superstar in the youth team to being a player at the highest level without losing his qualities. Ten Hag needs to trust a young player if he’s going to give them more game time. Garnacho and Mainoo have earned his trust and were players used as an example to Amad.

Amad has a long way to go, but he’s more Premier League-ready than ever. Michael Clegg, a former United player, worked with Amad in the Carrington gym, adding size and muscle during his injury. His power and strength are noticeable in his upper body physique.

He needs to show that he can get to the goal and that he has the legs to do the transitions on and off the ball. He can play against teams who play a low block, where United have to be nimble and create. He has the first touch and balance for that, the feel for the ball. He can also play as a No 8 in an attacking setup or as a false nine, but United don’t really play like that. He could come in as a No 10, but Fernandes has started every minute of every game in that role.

Amad’s best position is off the right, as an inside-forward. He’s a likeable lad who everyone has a lot of time for, as seen by the celebrations on Sunday. He’ll be hoping for many more like that.

(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

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