It took almost the entirety of two transfer windows, but Morocco’s midfield star Sofyan Amrabat has finally got his big post-World Cup transfer.
Amrabat has joined Manchester United on loan from Fiorentina, ending an agonising summer of waiting for a player who has spent the summer either not training, or training alone, while nervously glancing at his phone for news of a potential move.
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Leaving it so late in this window to strike a deal might give the impression that his signing is not a major coup, but that speaks more to Man United’s general disorganisation around transfers than it does to Amrabat’s qualities. Frankly, the club are incredible lucky he was still available.
The 27-year-old is entering the prime of his career, has just had his best season to date, and boasts close to a complete skillset for a No. 6. The strange thing is, you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you only watched him play for club OR country.
Only by combining the two — by watching him in the purple of Fiorentina and the deep red of Morocco — can you piece together the complete picture: a man who can do everything required to play at the base of midfield at the top level.
Morocco: Ball winner and ground pounder
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar introduced Amrabat to a wider audience. Fans saw a player willing to run through brick walls for Morocco as they reached the semifinals, getting around the pitch with such a ferocious intensity it put even the most established midfield opponents off balance. Indeed, his crunching tackle against France’s Kylian Mbappe really put him in the spotlight.
He covered the most ground at the tournament, racking up an astonishing 81.4 kilometres (just over 50 miles). It’s a statistic that was helped along by the fact he played a full seven games as the Atlas Lions’ finished fourth after losing the third-place playoff 2-1 to Croatia, but it tallies up with the image imprinted on everyone’s brain from that tournament: Amrabat pounding across the turf, covering every inch, closing down every pass.
The midfielder’s tally of 22 tackles and interceptions combined, plus 10 clearances on top, show how defensively effective he was. He ranked fifth at the tournament for combined tackles and interceptions; only France’s Aurélien Tchouaméni, Argentina’s Enzo Fernández (both 25), and Croatia pair Luka Modric (27) and Mateo Kovacic (28) managed more.
He did all of this despite battling an injury mid-tournament, putting himself through a gruelling physio schedule and taking pain-killing injections in order to take to the pitch against Spain in the quarterfinals. “I am very emotional,” he said at the time. “It was a question whether I could play this game [against Spain]. Last night I stayed up until 3 a.m. with the physio, an injection before the game too. I can’t abandon the guys and my country.”
Morocco’s tactics depended on him. They were an extremely intense team to play against, tightening the space between the lines, forcing loose balls and then hunting them down with an unnerving determination. Amrabat set the tone; he epitomised their style and was irreplaceable.
Fiorentina: Press-resistant ball mover
The off-ball qualities Amrabat showed at the 2022 World Cup jar with what Serie A viewers see on a week-to-week basis. At Fiorentina — and Hellas Verona before them — it’s his on-ball qualities that typically stand out.
Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Italiano favours a controlling, possession-dominant style — their average possession per game in Serie A last season (54.4%) was second only to title-winners Napoli. As the graphic above shows, that puts Amrabat on the ball a lot and he racked up 73.9 touches per 90 minutes, which was fifth among midfielders who played half a season’s minutes or more.
For his club, Amrabat plays as the deepest point, constantly receiving the ball from the centre-backs in buildup. He’s more than happy to drop in between to split them, creating a temporary back-three defensive line, before firing the ball forward or carrying it into space.
Giving him time on the ball is a mistake. On Fiorentina’s run to the UEFA Europa Conference League final, he completed the most passes (845) of any player, the third-most switch passes (18) and carried the ball a whopping 2,326 yards.
His league season was affected by La Viola‘s run to two cup finals, leading Italiano to rest his stars regularly at the back end of the season. But on a per 90 basis he still shone, averaging 7.93 progressive passes per 90 minutes in Serie A — for context across Europe, that beats Arsenal’s Martin Ødegaard (7.67), is only just shy of Man City’s Rodri (8.05), and is not far off the stellar Kevin De Bruyne (9.14).
Amrabat’s ability to receive the ball under pressure and turn will always open up the game for him. It’s a skill that should see him shine at United.
Best of both worlds
Man United boss Erik Ten Hag has been yearning to sign Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong for his ball progression skills since he took charge last summer. In Amrabat, he finally has some of those qualities.
The 2022-23 campaign also made it clear that United need a player who can cover for Casemiro, who missed a chunk of games due to suspension, and Amrabat is another tough-tackling, hard-nosed presence that can set the tone.
Ten Hag’s pre-existing relationship with Amrabat — they worked together between 2015-2017 at Utrecht in the Eredivisie — should ensure a smooth start to life at Old Trafford. And United fans will be excite to see the Moroccan merge his two skillsets together, creating one impressive, all-action force in midfield.