A fresh start. A chance for everyone to leave behind a year where a pandemic swept the World and everything was put on hold. As the clocks hit 12 and the 1st of January hit us, Manchester United fans were super excited.
Not about a new year. Oh no.
About the arrival some have called a ‘generational talent’. Enter Amad Diallo.
The transfer is not expected to be completed for a few days. A work permit needs to be officially requested but with Diallo receiving an Italian passport (Sky Sports) it shouldn’t prevent the move.
However, this isn’t an article designed to over hype the 18-year-old. Nor is it one to criticise. It is merely a cautionary article and let me show you why.
£37.2 million. It is a lot of money. It’s similar to how much Donny van de Beek cost. It’s more than Alex Telles was. He must be good right? Well, in youth football, yes. He was a star, but he’s only made five senior appearances for Atalanta, all off the bench. It’s a footballing tale as old as time. In any era, a player with a big price tag will have the same question posed. Can he handle it?
We don’t really have any proof that he can. Unfortunately for Diallo, he may have fallen foul of work permit rules. As explained by former AC Milan legend Giovanni Galli (Football Italia), “The club need to have valid reasons to take him to the United Kingdom. One reason is that the player is coming from a top team and with Atalanta that have been playing international competitions over the last few years, there are no problems to prove it. The second reason is the price tag. A €40 million signing means he is an important investment for the club. If the cost would be €1 or €2 million (£1-2 million) it may have been more difficult to get the work permit. That being said, €40m (£37.2m) is still a lot of money.”
Frustrations with work permit rules may see a lot more big money young signings, especially with Brexit also coming into force as 2021 begins. Of course, that isn’t Diallo’s fault. Unfortunately though, there will be no asterisk next to his fee saying, ‘yes it was a lot of money, but work permit issues meant it cost a lot more’. Nor will rival fans or pundits allow it to be an excuse. Remember Bebe. He only cost £7 million and is often considered to be one of the worst signings in Premier League history. Even Gabriel Obertan. £3 million. Didn’t happen at United, although in fairness to him, he managed to forge a few years in England with Newcastle and Wigan.
Maybe a more apt comparison would be Memphis Depay. Now there is a caveat to this comparison. Depay was 21 years old, was already a first teamer at PSV, had top scored in the Eredivisie in a title winning season and had been capped by the Netherlands. All that being said, Depay came at a time where United had suffered two poor seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson had retired. He cost £31 million, not to dissimilar to Diallo and arrived with much fanfare, as has Diallo. However, as we all know, it did not work out. He struggled to adapt to the Premier League in his first season and when Jose Mourinho came in, it was clear he was not fancied by the new manager. He was sold in January to Lyon where he has gone on to be a top player developing into Lyon’s talisman. His move to Manchester United had come too soon. It wasn’t just the fee, or the fan fare. It was the step up, playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world and by his own admission, he only had himself to blame.
Diallo comes to United without the first team experience, but will have to deal with the price tag and the fan fare at being at a club like United, nonetheless.
Lack of first team football
As touched upon earlier, Diallo has had very little first team football. Atalanta have afforded him just 59 minutes with all appearances coming off the bench. Last season he bagged his first goal and maybe some would have expected far more minutes as we came into the new season. There has been one big difference this season, though. From 14 matchdays this season, Diallo has been on the bench 10 times. Training and being around any first team at a young age will aid his development. Being in a team that is so free flowing will also help. Atalanta scored 98 goals last season. Yes, 98. They’ve only scored 28 goals so far this season, but only three teams in Serie A have more. Gian Piero Gasperini will have been a great coach to learn from. When interviewed by The Guardian last season he gave an insight into his philosophy.
“To give you an idea I will use a Chinese proverb from 500 BC [from the Art of War]: ‘Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’ This sums up the spirit and mentality I want my team to have. But there’s something else that is important too: the identity you create in a team must always be reinforced. You must grow and improve, day by day, because if you do not improve, you are done. Those who stop, they have lost.
During training, my players need to struggle; those who aren’t used to working hard scare me. But from the struggle, victories are born. If you don’t run in training then you don’t run during the game. Then, of course it is important to have fun in training too because from that comes the style of play and the quality.”
The fact that Diallo will have been around Gasperini a lot during the last year and a half is a positive. You sense that if Diallo didn’t work hard in training, he wouldn’t have got onto the bench this season. Being a winger may have also prevented further first team minutes. Atalanta play five at the back, with wing-backs and attacking midfielders, so it will have been hard for Gasperini to give him too many minutes without changing his system.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains the same. Diallo has not played many first team minutes and it would be a huge ask to come to Old Trafford and walk straight into the first team squad.
Manchester United are in a title race
However much some United fans and pundits want to downplay it, United are (at the moment) in a title race. Level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League with goal difference separating them, although United have a game in hand heading into the second half of the season. That is being in a title race.
Transfers are not often made in January, with fees often inflated. Clubs are usually in desperation mode if signings are made half-way through the season, whether it a team battling relegation and need reinforcements, or as it was last season with United, a top team struggling and need a fix quickly. This time last year, Bruno Fernandes signed for United. Whilst £47 million may have been seen as an expensive signing, it now looks to be an absolute steal and one of United’s best signings in many windows. However, that type of signing being that successful is very much the exception rather than the rule. United have been rumoured to make signings this January. Whether any signings can be made to push on in the title race remains to be seen. Players such as Max Aarons from Norwich (The Sun) and Moises Caicedo from Independiente (Daily Mail) have been heavily linked. However, they are players who are believed to be able to come into the squad and do a job now.
Realistically, are United going to give time to Diallo in important Premier League games? No. Fa Cup if they drew a lower league side? Maybe. Europe League? Much better chance. Nonetheless, it is far more likely that Diallo will follow the Facundo Pellistri route.
The Facundo Pellistri Model
On the same day that United announced that Diallo would be joining in January, they also announced another young signing. Another winger in fact. Uruguayan, Facundo Pellistri.
It might be wise for us to use Pellistri as a model for Diallo. Both signings were announced on the same day, however, Pellistri made the move immediately to United on the 5 October 2020 for a far modest £10 million (Daily Mail). He was recommended by former United striker, Diego Forlan and so far, he has managed to make it onto two Champions League benches but has begun his United career in the under 23’s.
After a steady start, he has started to impress and over the Christmas break he trained with the first team squad (Daily Mail) so that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could take a look at him. With the FA Cup game against Watford looming in the middle of a tough run of games, United may be about to catch a first glimpse of the youngster in the senior team. That has taken five months to materialise. Pellistri had already made 37 senior appearances from Penarol, so he has that over Diallo as well.
Even though Pellistri joined in October, he has still only made eight under 23 appearances. He has three goals and an assist in that time but making the step up to the first team will see a far bigger increase in intensity. Despite Diallo frequenting the bench so often this season, 35 minutes of football is all he has seen. He will need minutes to get up to full match sharpness. Again, this isn’t going to happen in the first team. He will need a few months in the under 23’s to gain fitness as well as to acclimatise himself to Manchester, just like his fellow winger has.
Wing rivals at the club already
As I was talking about Pellistri, it struck me that whilst United will likely follow his pathway into the club, they will be rivals for the same positions. Then it struck me even more that whilst Pellistri and Diallo have cost a combined £47 million, there are other wingers already at the club fighting for the same positions.
Tahith Chong has probably been forgotten about due to these signings, but the Dutchmen featured in the first team last season and his loan move to Werder Bremen was anticipated to kickstart his career and ready him for more first team action on his return. He started with a goal in a cup game on his debut but having to self-isolate after coming into contact with a teammate with COVID hasn’t helped him settle. He has been afforded just three starts and eight substitute appearances but has yet to contribute a goal or assist in those game. The Werder Bremen head of football, Clemens Fritz, has urged for patience (Manchester Evening News) with Chong, so United will be hoping an improved second half of the season will see him ready for the first team next season. They are obviously high on him after he signed a contract extension last season.
Shola Shoretire is an interesting proposition. The club are very high on him and rightly so. At just 15 years of age, he made his debut for the under 18’s. The season after he made 18 appearances and this season, he has already made the jump to the under 23’s. He is still one month short of his 17th birthday. In ten appearances, he has made nine starts, highlighting his importance to the side already. Neil Wood, the under 23 manager, recently raved about him. If he continues his rate of progression, the first team won’t be too far away.
Then there is Anthony Elanga, who has impressed regularly for the under 23’s after his promotion from the under 18’s. Still only 18 himself, he scored seven goals and laid on three assists for the under 18’s last season and in only nine games. 11 league games have seen four goals and two assists for the under 23’s as well as scoring two goals and getting an assist in the Papa John’s Trophy. Playing well against senior players, albeit in lower leagues, suggests that Elanga has something about him as does the 60-yard solo goal he scored a few weeks back. Gary Neville recently called him a “nightmare to play against” and also likened him to Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry. High praise indeed.
These three players, along with Pellistri, show that Amad Diallo, despite the price tag, won’t find it that easy to make the under 23 side, let alone the first team. Of course, the issues I’ve mentioned before may not mean anything.
Diallo is likely to play under 23 football before the first team. however, he might rip that league up. Solskjaer may believe that he’s that extra piece that can fire United to a league title. He might take to the Premier League like a duck to water. He has been described as a generational talent after all. So, why not?
Written by Huw Rawlings