Amad is shining at Sunderland – but when might he be ready for Manchester United?

Even allowing for the bravado that typically accompanies a big-money signing, Manchester United felt they had secured a treasured addition when buying Amad Diallo from Atalanta two years ago.

The teenage winger had been identified as one of European football’s most prodigious talents. The £19million ($22.8m) needed to sign him, with clauses to potentially double the initial outlay, had its risks but the potential was considered vast.

“I believe he is one of the most exciting young prospects in the game,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then the United boss. “He is a player with all of the raw attributes that are needed to be an important player for Manchester United in the years to come.”

Time will tell as we near the halfway point of Amad’s four-and-a-half-year deal at Old Trafford still without an impression made, but the youngster has at least found a foothold in his pursuit up the mountain.

Amad has become the attacking star of Sunderlands encouraging season in the Championship. Signed on loan in the final hours of the summer transfer window, a slow start has given way to a brilliant run of form with Tony Mowbray’s youthful side. Eleven consecutive starts have yielded six goals and established Amad as a firm fans’ favorite at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland have seen everything that Solskjaer had predicted when Amad became the biggest signing of the 2021 January window; trickery, balance, bursts of peace and invention. If one thing has become achingly clear it is that he has no future in the Championship.

The big question, of course, is when might Amad be ready for the Premier League? And, more specifically, Manchester United?

Erik ten Hag has already tossed the dilemma around in his mind and seemingly concluded that now is not the time.

“We consider everything but I have a little bit of reservation about that because I don’t want to stop the process,” the Dutchman said last week.

“He has made really good progress there so I’m happy with that. But young players need experiences and when we decide for him to come back, he has to be a player who can compete for the starting XI or minimum to come on for a lot of games and make an impact.”

Amad, in truth, is not quite there. Not yet, at least.

The Championship has provided his first meaningful — and lasting — introduction to senior football and the education is not over. There will be concerns that recalling Amad now would have the potential to do more harm than good. Games and experiences are still needed for a player that does not turn 21 until the summer and it is at Sunderland where the greatest opportunities are to be had.

Ten Hag sees too many obstacles blocking Amad’s path at Old Trafford. Anthony is the club’s £90million signing from Ajax. Bruno Fernandes has also been used regularly on the right flank, the position where Amad has flourished with Sunderland. Then there is Marcus Rashford, used on both flanks by Ten Hag this season. Not to mention Anthony Elanga, Alejandro Garnacho and the currently-absent Jadon Sancho in United’s roster of young wingers.

Amad, meanwhile, has something close to a cast-iron guarantee of starting games at Sunderland. Mowbray, who was credited with helping Harvey Elliott’s rise when together for a season at Blackburn Rovers in 2020-21, cannot help but be effusive in his praise of Amad. He has called the winger “amazing” in recent weeks. “A very talented boy”.

Sunderland fans will concur. They have seen Amad’s growing influence coincide with a sustained climb up the Championship table. Just one defeat has come in the last seven, forcing conversations over Sunderland’s ability to reach the play-offs within a year of escaping from League One. They currently sit a point adrift of the play-off places in eighth.

The last seven days have already brought the loss of Ellis Simms for Sunderland, recalled prematurely from his own season-long loan by Everton. There is a greater desperation about Everton, though — a club scrambling around for solutions, rather than a club like United on the right track with Ten Hag.

“My experience tells me he is in a really good place, so leave him, let him enjoy his football, and let him grow and develop,” said Mowbray, discussing Amad’s future just before Christmas.

“Otherwise, what’s he doing? He could go back to Manchester United and maybe not even get on their bench. He’s a young guy who’s had a tough period, he’s now found a bit of form and somewhere where he is settled and looking happy, so I would just let him keep going.”

It has been a trademark celebration already seen half a dozen times this season. His right hand over his ear, his left hand over his eye. A tribute to former Atalanta youth team-mate Willy Braciano Ta Bi, who died at the age of 21 with liver cancer two years ago.

Amad introduced it when scoring his first United goal in the Europa League last-16 tie against AC Milan in March 2021 and has continued to repeat the tribute while wearing a Sunderland shirt this season.

The most recent celebrations came in a 4-1 win away at Wigan Athletic last week, where Amad had scored a breathtaking goal from distance to complete a comfortable win for Mowbray’s side. Little invitation to shoot was needed and an arrowed left-foot drive was sent into the corner from 25 yards out.

It shaded another sweet finish just before the World Cup break, when Sunderland won away at Birmingham City. A breakaway ended with Amad again cutting inside on to his left and curling his shot around the defender and goalkeeper.

There have been less spectacular goals, like the close-range finish that sent Sunderland on their way to a 3-0 win over Millwall last month. There was even a penalty, when assuming duties after winning his own spot kick in defeat to West Bromwich Albion.

This is a very different Amad to the one that struggled to make his mark with Rangers last season. Although the loan started brightly, with a goal on debut away to Ross County 12 months ago, he failed to win the trust of Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Confidence levels crumbled in a spell that brought only four league starts.

At Sunderland, his tail is up and there is a willingness to take on possession wherever he might find himself. Defenders are routinely on his back but seldom is the ball surrendered. Much of his time is spent on the right flank, though there is a tendency to drift inside and into pockets of space.

Amad’s dribbling skills are obvious but he has also been adept with the slick, one-touch football that Mowbray encourages. Ball retention and dribbling ability are the areas where he scored highest in possession. His smarterscout link-up play score of 77 out of 99 shows how active he has been in getting involved with the play, with neat, simple passes.

Amad’s xG from shot creation score with Sunderland — 59 out of 99 — offers room for improvement but an average return of one goal every 197 minutes underlines his importance to Sunderland this season.

There are still flaws to the 20-year-old’s game. Defending intensity is low, as is his record of disrupting opposition moves (with defensive actions such as tackles, blocks and clearances), but there has been a willingness to recover the ball and intercept. The Boxing Day win over Blackburnfor example, saw Amad chase back 50 yards into his own half to halt his opponents from breaking.

Mowbray keeps asking for more, as he does with Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, Sunderland’s other two wingers who know the weight of having a hefty price tag as teenagers. Amad hit the crossbar twice in the games that straddled New Year, first against Wigan and then Blackpoolwhile the latter game saw a telling final pass elude the youngster in a 1-1 draw Sunderland were disappointed not to win.

Consistency has not been a problem since Amad found his feet on Wearside but the second half of this season will need to bring more of the same if Ten Hag is to be as convinced of the winger’s talent as Solskjaer evidently was.

Another loan move, perhaps to a Premier League rival or a club in a big European league, might be next on Amad’s path to approval but time spent with Sunderland is undeniably hastening his rise.

(Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)


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