Sofyan Amrabat impressed with his all-action style at the 2022 World Cup, but don’t be fooled; if he joins Manchester United, he’ll offer much more than destructive qualities.
Ralf Rangnick’s five-a-half-month spell as Manchester United interim manager was largely miserable. The atmosphere around the club was toxic and the football they played was rather grim, but to the German’s coach’s credit, he was unapologetically honest about the team’s situation and what they needed to do to bring themselves into the 21st century.
Rangnick’s assessments were particularly forthright in the wake of the 4-0 Premier League defeat to Liverpool in April 2022. Straight after that game, he said: “If you analyse the situation, it is not difficult. For me, it is clear there will be six, seven, eight, maybe 10 new players. Before you sign those players, you need to be aware how you want to play.”
And then, a couple of days later, with Erik ten Hag’s appointment hastily brought forward to appease fans, Rangnick waded in even deeper, adding: “You don’t even need glasses to see and analyse where the problems are. Now it’s about how do we solve them? It’s not enough to do some minor amendments – cosmetic things. In medicine you would say that this is an operation of the open heart. If this happens and everyone has realised that this has to happen, and if people want to work together, then it makes sense and I believe it doesn’t take two or three years to change those things. This can happen within one year.”
It’s taken a little longer than that, but if United press on with their reported interest in Sofyan Amrabat, he’ll become the ninth permanent signing since Ten Hag took the reins. The Morocco midfielder’s arrival would perfectly encapsulate what United have started to do right in the transfer market.
Rangnick repeatedly banged the drum in favour of managerial stability and – for want of a better word – ‘synergy’; joined-up thinking across as many areas of the club as necessary, with decisions revolving around a clear playing style implemented by the manager. It sounds obvious, but clearly he – and many United fans would agree – felt this hadn’t been the case with his predecessors.
Of course, it’s easy to praise United and Ten Hag now. If they miss out on the top four this season and fail to win a trophy, it’ll be interesting to see how the club reacts and whether the manager retains trust, but sadly we can’t see into the future. Similarly, the players signed – or may yet sign – this summer could ultimately be poor investments for a myriad of reasons.
But those brought in last year were signed to play a specific brand of football and they’ve generally contributed well, even if Antony’s creative output was somewhat disappointing. Again, it’s easy to see the stylistic rationale behind this summer’s purchases as well, with André Onana, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund all possessing skillsets that should lend themselves to Ten Hag’s masterplan of creating a team that’s brilliant at pressing, playing out from the back, and slicing through teams in transition. Amrabat is no exception.
The Fiorentina midfielder was one of the standout players at the 2022 World Cup, excelling as the industrious base to Morocco’s aesthetically pleasing midfield. Clearly he was a well-rounded player, but he arguably impressed most on-lookers with the defensive side of his game. He was tough, uncompromising and hard-working.
Among midfielders at the tournament, Amrabat’s 14 fouls conceded was the most, he ranked joint-third for tackles (16) and led the way for possession regains (57). His 26 recoveries in the defensive third was also a high among the same group of players. Granted, he was part of a team that made it to the semi-finals so he played more minutes than a lot of players, but the very fact he was such an integral part of a team that defied the odds for so long should count for something.
Despite standing out for this side of his game in Qatar, the perception that he’s simply a midfield enforcer couldn’t be wider of the mark. He wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement for Fred either, regardless of Amrabat’s potential arrival being linked to the Brazilian’s departure to Fenerbahce.
The way Amrabat shone at Fiorentina over the 2022-23 season was rather different to how he impressed at the World Cup, owing a lot to the two teams’ contrasting styles of play.
Fiorentina’s average share of 56.4% possession in Serie A last season was second only to champions Napoli (62.1%), highlighting how they tended to dominate the ball. Morocco, on the other hand, enjoyed only 37.8% possession at the World Cup; that was more than just five teams and less than the likes of Qatar (42.5%), Saudi Arabia (44.8%) and Wales (45.6%).
This obviously has an impact on Amrabat’s defensive metrics because Fiorentina spent a lot less time without the ball than many clubs; it’s much harder to rank high for tackles if your team has lots of possession, for example.
While he did still provide destructiveness – ranking second among Serie A midfielders (minimum 1,000 minutes played) for fouls conceded per 90 minutes (2.4) – in the centre for Fiorentina, his greatest contribution to the team by far was being a fine distributor.
For starters, his 89.3% passing accuracy in open play was only bettered by four midfielders (minimum 1,000 minutes played) last season. A number of factors made such reliability even more impressive, with Amrabat certainly not “stat-padding” with lots of short passes.
He played more long passes on a per-90-minute basis (7.4) than any other midfielder, and he also completed the most (131). That gave him a long-ball accuracy of 79.4%; among midfielders to attempt at least eight long passes, Stanislav Lobotka of Napoli was the one player with a better completion rate (81% of 116).
As such, despite playing only 2,005 minutes across the season, Amrabat’s overall successful passing distance of 23,707 metres was the sixth most in the entire division, and all of those ranked higher than him played at least an extra 933 minutes (or roughly 10 matches). Unsurprisingly then, the average length of his successful open-play passes (19.2 metres) was unmatched.
Typically, the longer the pass, the more difficult it is. Sure, it’s not always the case; a player might play a lot of sideways passes to a full-back in their own defensive half, but Amrabat certainly wasn’t passive in his use of the ball last season.
He ranked 11th among midfielders for progressive passes per 90 (4.2), and his 37.5 passes in the opponents’ half per game was in the top five. In fact, his successful-passes-upfield distance of 7,454 metres was the 10th most versus the same group of players, and the nine above him averaged over 860 minutes more for the season.
This shouldn’t paint a picture of Amrabat being reticent to holding onto the ball, however. He was more than capable of getting Fiorentina on the front himself, offering drive and purpose as well in central areas, ranking sixth among all central, defensive and attacking midfielders (minimum 1,000 minutes played) for progressive carries (moving with the ball at least five metres upfield) per 90 minutes.
In short, Amrabat was one the standout deep-lying playmakers in Serie A last season. Not only was he dependable with the ball at his feet, he also showcased exceptional vision and technique, playing a crucial role in Fiorentina’s efforts to monopolise possession. But how would he fit in at Old Trafford?
Of course, some might suggest United isn’t the right move for Amrabat because Casemiro pretty much has his favoured position locked down in their midfield. That would be a fair comment, but last season Ten Hag lacked a dependable backup to the Brazilian.
Although he only failed to appear in 11 matches across all competitions last term for United, he missed eight games in the Premier League alone due to suspension. Without him, their win rate dropped from 68.6% (all competitions) to 54.5%.
We can’t attribute this entirely to Casemiro, but he was undoubtedly so important to United both in build-up and defensive phases of play; Christian Eriksen, Scott McTominay and Fred have all been used as the deep-lying midfielder over the past few years, but none were a suitable replacement for Casemiro.
Amrabat might just be, but he also possesses the skillset to play alongside Casemiro or slightly further up as more of a number 8, so it shouldn’t be a case of having to wait for the former Real Madrid star to be suspended just to get a look-in.
Ten Hag often alluded to how he wanted United to play during his first few months in charge. It was about pressing well, playing out from the back and being the dominant force, but in the process he discovered arguably their biggest strength lay in transition.
With plenty of pace in attack and excellent passers such as Bruno Fernandes, Lisandro Martínez, Eriksen and Casemiro through the spine of the team, United registered more direct attacks (102) than any other team in the Premier League last season. To some, ‘direct attack’ might mean instances of lumping the ball to a big man up top, but Opta’s definition is a little more nuanced: “An open-play sequence that starts just inside the team’s own half and has at least 50% of movement towards the opposition’s goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition’s box.”
United’s record of scoring nine goals from such situations was also the most in the division, and Ten Hag is looking to harness that strength even more going forward, saying at the start of pre-season: “We really looked into the history of Manchester United and we really looked also into the qualities of our players, and then you can say, so what do we want to be? That is, we want to be the best transition team in the world. We want to surprise. We want to play dynamic [football], we want to play with speed and we want to play aggressive out of a very good team spirit. So that is United. And I think already, last year, we have seen that version, we have seen it across small games, we have seen it in big games. We showed we can beat all the opponents, all the good opponents in the world, but we have to do it on a consistent basis and I think that is a huge challenge for us to go all together in that battle.”
Considering Amrabat’s demonstrable passing talents, particularly over mid-to-long distance, it’s no wonder then that Ten Hag might believe he’s the ideal player to bolster his midfield in the pursuit of transitional greatness.
Whether it works or not is another matter, and the deal isn’t over the line yet, but at last it appears there’s a genuine thought process behind United’s recruitment; Rangnick may not have had an impact on the pitch, but there are plenty of signs they’ve heeded his honest advice.