Amad Diallo’s Manchester United career looked to be in danger of fizzling out after a difficult loan spell at Rangers, but he impressed with Sunderland and has another opportunity to prove himself to Erik ten Hag.
Sunderland and fans at the Stadium of Light were enamoured; Crazy In Love, you might say. Rarely in recent years has this level of glamour, flashiness and pizzazz been seen on Wearside, but locals were given a real treat.
Beyoncé may have been performing there on Tuesday, but we are actually referring to Amad Diallo, the Manchester United winger who has won the hearts and minds of Sunderland supporters during a fruitful loan spell in the Championship this season.
Sadly, for Amad and Sunderland, the campaign didn’t culminate in promotion, with the Black Cats losing 3-2 on aggregate to Luton Town in the Championship play-off semi-finals. But, considering it was their first season back in the second tier following promotion, finding themselves so close to ending a seven-year Premier League absence was an achievement in itself.
Amad more than played his part, producing numerous standout performances along the way and scoring some spectacular goals. His form hasn’t just excited Sunderland fans, but those of a Man Utd persuasion as well.
Black Cats, Good Luck
As the saying goes, “never fall in love with a loan player.” Rangers fans certainly didn’t. Amad’s time at Ibrox in the second half of the 2021-22 season may have been helpful from an experience perspective, finding himself at a club that reached the UEFA Europa League final.
But, still only a teenager, Amad endured a difficult time in Glasgow. Former Rangers midfielder Brian Laudrup suggested in a Daily Mail column that then-coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst didn’t trust the youngster.
It began so promisingly as well. A goal five minutes into his debut – a 3-3 draw with Ross County – was a good way to endear himself to fans, even if it was a tap-in. Then, his stepover-laden run and long-range shot led to a scramble in the box, from which Rangers scored to make it 2-2.
But in his second appearance, Amad was one of three taken off at half-time with Rangers 3-0 down away to bitter rivals Celtic in the Old Firm on 2 February 2022. He didn’t start again in the Scottish Premiership until late April.
An inability to adapt to the intensity of Scottish football was routinely offered up as an explanation for Amad’s difficulties, with Van Bronckhorst even suggesting as much. So, when his loan switch to Sunderland was confirmed at the end of August, many United supporters were understandably sceptical about him making a big impact in the Championship, similarly notorious for its intensity and physicality.
But credit to Amad, and Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray. It’s been a match made in heaven.
Mowbray being patient has arguably been a key element. That’s not something a player tends to be afforded if joining on loan in January, as was the case with Amad in Scotland. But at Sunderland, Amad didn’t start a Championship game for over a month (4 October) after joining. His next wasn’t until 22 October.
Amad was given time to adjust to the pace of the league mostly through substitute appearances, and by early November the signs were promising. Mowbray had experimented with the Ivorian in a central role early on, given Sunderland’s dearth of strikers, but he looked much more at home back on the right against Burnley on 22 October. He scored his first goal for the club and showed encouraging flashes even in a 4-2 defeat.
He scored again at the start of November in a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town, standing out as probably the best player on the pitch. His comfort and confidence on the ball were real features in a fine performance. He might’ve got a little lucky with some unconvincing goalkeeping for the goal, but it was a display that deserved such fortune.
Since then, only two outfield players (Daniel Neil and Jack Clarke) made more Championship starts for Sunderland than Amad (25) or played more minutes (2,257) than him.
So, what’s he brought to the team? In a nutshell: attacking influence, bravery, and goals.
Among Sunderland players to feature for at least 540 minutes in the Championship this term, none were involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences on a per-90-minute basis than Amad (5.5), whose exceptional technical skills and vision make him a threat whether he’s attempting to knit the play together, create openings for teammates or going for goal himself.
It’s probably the latter that’s seen him attract most attention, however. He scored 14 times this season, 11 excluding penalties, and many were truly tremendous. The long-range screamer against Wigan Athletic; the curler in off the post away to Birmingham City; the sensational free-kick into the top-left corner at home to Luton in the play-offs; a first-time beauty into the same corner against Preston North End – Amad’s basically had his own Goal of the Season competition.
With that in mind, it probably won’t come as a huge shock to learn only four players (minimum 1,000 minutes played) exceeded their non-penalty expected goals (np-xG) by more than Amad (4.9). Lucky? Perhaps, but it’d also be fair to consider the 20-year-old’s seemingly prodigious ability. At what point does “lucky” become “quality”?
In relation to Amad, maybe that’s a question for a couple of years down the line. What we can certainly say now about those goals is that his often-audacious attempts do reflect a general confidence and belief, and that feeds into his general play.
Just three players categorised as wingers, wide midfielders or attacking midfielders tallied more carries (550) than Amad in the Championship this season, and teammate Patrick Roberts was the only one of those to register more per 90 (19.1 to 17.9). He also ranked sixth for total carry progress (6,490 metres), and three of those above him played at least 500 more minutes.
A New Challenge
Amad’s case is somewhat curious. Let’s not forget, United committed to potentially spending £38 million when they lured him away from Atalanta in 2020. Even with roughly half of that fee being dependent on variables and bonuses, it’s an amount that brings certain expectations with it.
After eventually linking up with United in January 2021, Amad made a handful of domestic cup and UEFA Europa League appearances, then making his Premier League debut in May. Rarely did he look ready for that level, however. He was routinely physically mismatched by his opponents and, despite clearly possessing technical ability, Amad seemed shy and lacked the directness he’s shown much more often at Sunderland.
In fairness to him, however, he was only 18 years old at the time. It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to be immensely talented and possess significant potential yet simultaneously be lacking the requisite ability to play at an elite level at that moment. The key thing for Amad is, even if he ends up being sent on loan again, it’ll almost certainly be at Premier League – or equivalent – level. This is progress, and for a young player that’s crucial.
Nevertheless, after quite emphatically dispelling the doubts that arose during his time at Rangers, Amad has earned himself another opportunity at United, even if just over pre-season. There’s lots to suggest Erik ten Hag will see him as a viable option.
For starters, stylistically Amad should be a good fit straightaway given his profile as a left-footed right-winger is comparable to Antony. That’ll also continue to encourage the right-back – whether that’s one of their current players or a new signing – to overlap.
It’s impossible to say whether he’s “ready” to become a regular player for United’s first team, but areas that were somewhat concerning – lacking bravery and being lightweight – before his time at Sunderland have clearly been worked on considerably. Only five players in the Championship this season have completed more dribbles than Amad (76), and he ranks ninth among wingers and attacking midfielders for combined shots and chances created following a take-on (42).
Similarly, among all forward to have played at least 1,000 minutes in the Championship this term, only Brighton-bound João Pedro (69.3) averaged more touches than Amad (67.2). So, not only is he always seeking the ball and wanting to be in possession, his teammates trust him.
Those aren’t the behaviours of a player lacking belief or bravery, and it’s also evidence of him becoming more attuned to the physical requirements. There was even an instance away to Birmingham this season when he appeared to have been knocked down, but he continued to shield the ball and then wriggled free to tee up Ellis Simms for a goal.
Dislodging Antony as the preferred option on the right flank mightn’t be as easy as some think. Although a slightly frustrating operator at times, the Brazilian is clearly well liked by Ten Hag and offers a different kind of directness to Amad. Sure, the latter has attempted more dribbles on average this season (5.4 to 3.7), but Antony carries (13m to 11.8m) and progresses (7.2m to 3.6m) the ball further.
Either way, there’s no doubt Amad’s form in the Championship has earned him the right to at least stake a claim for a squad role.
Pre-season holds the key for Amad, but if he continues to rise to challenges like he did with the Championship, Antony and Sancho might find him a real threat to their positions sooner rather than later.