Keep, loan or sell? Man Utd's Amad Diallo dilemma after superb Sunderland loan spell

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Amad Diallo Sunderland 2022-23
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The Ivorian has shone for Sunderland in their run to the Championship play-offs, but breaking into the United first team is set to be tough

When Manchester United scout players, they want to see someone not just with ability, but with personality too, someone who can step up and deliver in the most challenging circumstances. So the club's staff will have been delighted to see Amad Diallo's wondergoal for Sunderland against Luton on Saturday.

Trailing 1-0 at home in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final, Diallo stood over a free-kick from a position that most players would have crossed into the box. Instead, he asked for it to be laid off to his left and produced an unstoppable finish, whipping the ball into the far top corner.

His manager Tony Mowbray purred on the sidelines, while Gary Lineker was one of many to take to social media to rave about the goal, which helped the Black Cats earn a crucial 2-1 win. But to anyone who has charted Amad's progress this season while on loan from United, it was not a surprise.

Mowbray has described the forward as "a magician", and Sunderland's chances of holding off Luton in Tuesday's second leg and then winning the play-off final will likely rest on whether the forward can produce yet more sorcery.

But however Sunderland's season ends, they know that they are unlikely to count on Amad for much longer. Two years after United agreed to pay Atalanta up to £37 million to sign the then-18-year-old, they are watching him blossom into a truly exciting footballer from afar.

Now the club have a huge decision to make which could determine the player's future as well as their own. Should they cash in on his success at Sunderland or send him out on another loan so he can continue his rise?Or should Erik ten Hag give him a shot in the first team and unleash a thrilling, youthful forward line with Alejandro Garnacho on the left wing and Amad on the right?

  1. Tearing City apart & scoring on his Serie A debut

    Tearing City apart & scoring on his Serie A debut

    United agreeing to sign Amad was one of the most interesting moves of the 2020 summer transfer window. How could they be so convinced about a player who had played just 59 minutes of first-team football?

    The truth was that Atalanta have one of the top youth academies in Europe - Dejan Kulusevski is just one of many recent stars to have come through their ranks - and Amad had been catching the eye ever since he joined the club aged 13.

    United had started keeping track of the winger five years before they signed him, first hearing about him when he was in Atalanta's Under-15 side. He continued to make waves as he rose through the club's age-groups teams, and one of his best early displays came in Manchester, ravaging Manchester City in a UEFA Youth League game in October 2019, which Atalanta won 3-1.

    Weeks later, he made his Serie A debut, aged 17, coming off the bench and scoring in a 7-1 win over Udinese. Despite his dream debut, he did not get handed many more opportunities by coach Gian Piero Gasperini, making a total of four league appearances for the first team before sealing his move to United without ever starting a match for Atalanta.

  2. 'One of the most exciting young prospects'

    'One of the most exciting young prospects'

    Still, United were pleased to have got their man and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United's manager at the time, called Amad "one of the most exciting young prospects in the game, a player with all of the raw attributes that are needed to be an important player for Manchester United".

    The teenager was given a handful of chances as soon as he arrived, and in only his third appearance for the Red Devils, he scored a backwards header against AC Milan in the Europa League at Old Trafford. There were no fans in the stadium due to coronavirus restrictions, but he marked the goal with a poignant celebration, putting one hand over his ear and the other over his eye. It was a tribute to his former Atalanta team-mate Willy Braciano Ta Bi, also from the Ivory Coast, who had died of cancer, aged 21, just one month before.

    The goal was a demonstration of the youngster's quality and confidence, but he made only 12 appearances under Solskjaer, three of which were starts, before being loaned out to Rangers in January 2022.

  3. Rangers frustration

    Rangers frustration

    The Scottish champions might have looked like a good place for Amad to take the next step in his career, but the move turned out to be a disaster for him. He made 13 appearances for Giovanni van Bronckhorst's side in all competitions, starting only four times in the Scottish Premiership. He failed, however, to even make it off the bench during Rangers' thrilling Europa League campaign, as they reached the final before losing on penalties to Eintracht Frankfurt.

    Van Bronckhorst didn't seem to trust the youngster in the most important games, caring little for his reputation as a future star, instead sticking with more experienced players. "I think he has talent. He came in in the winter break, he had some good moments but also some moments that were not so good," the then-Rangers manager said in April 2022. "He looks very good in training so hopefully he can extend that into the games."

    Ultimately, the unforgiving world of Scottish football did not seem to suit a player who had earned his reputation by dominating youth football.

  4. Catching fire with Sunderland
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    Catching fire with Sunderland

    United must have been concerned by the fact that their prized asset was only warming the bench in Scotland, getting hardly any more exposure to senior football than if he had stayed in Manchester. But Amad's experience in Glasgow was good for one thing: character building.

    A loan move to Sunderland might have presented similar pitfalls to Rangers but, after a slow start, he came to life in his second start against Burnley in October, scoring his first goal for the club. It was the start of a run of five goals in seven matches as he truly began to adapt to a new team and a new league.Ever since, Amad has been generating headlines in practically every match he plays.

    His missile against Luton was his 14th goal of the season, more than any other Sunderland player. And nearly every strike has been a Goal of the Season contender. Just the previous week, he curled in another stunner to break the deadlock against Preston, striking the ball first time and with hardly any back-lift as the Black Cats dramatically clinched a play-off berth.

    Then there was also the time he pinged the ball into the bottom corner at Wigan after exchanging a one-two. Or his sensational performance against Birmingham, when he set up a goal for Ellis Simms after taking on four defenders and then scored by cutting in from the left and curling the ball into the bottom corner. In the 4-4 draw with Hull City, he scored two and set up one.

    While Van Bronckhorst and Gasperini struggled to take to Amad, Sunderland boss Mowbray appears infatuated with him, and dreams of another season with him in his side. "It would be great if we could say, ‘Let’s keep that story going,'" Mowbray said earlier this month. "The kid, he would do it again. He is playing every week, he scores, the fans love him."

  5. No room in United's squad
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    No room in United's squad

    While many United fans have salivated at the prospect of Amad returning to Old Trafford next season and starting regularly, the club need to think long and hard about whether he would be able to take the next step with them.

    Even though he has been ripping it up with Sunderland, United cannot forget that this is the first time in his career that Diallo has enjoyed regular first-team football. At this stage in his career, turning 21 in July, he cannot afford another step back like the one he took with Rangers. He needs to build on the momentum he has shown this season, not stand still. And the reality is that United is a very crowded place for wide forwards. If Amad returns, he will be competing for a starting berth with at least four players.

    First of all there's Marcus Rashford, arguably the team's most important player who has just had the best season of his career. Amad has little chance of competing with the England forward and club idol. Then there's Antony, the most expensive player in the squad and a personal favourite of Ten Hag. The Brazilian still looks absurdly one-footed and has only scored four Premier League goals and provided two assists in his first campaign, but he cost too much for United to give up on already. The same is true of Jadon Sancho, who has endured a really difficult season and whose market value has shrunk in his two disappointing years since joining United for £73m.

    Amad would also have to contend with the club's latest teenage sensation, Alejandro Garnacho, who made an emphatic return to injury by scoring against Wolves on Saturday and has just signed a new bumper contract. There is also Facundo Pellistri and Anthony Elanga to throw into the mix, although both players are likely to leave in the summer, either on loan or permanently, after failing to make inroads into the first team.

  6. Another loan - but to the right club
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    Another loan - but to the right club

    United should also resist the temptation to sell Amad. They paid an initial £19m for him in 2021, with the potential for a further £17m in bonuses, which hinge upon him ultimately succeeding at the club. It is not hard to imagine clubs paying up to £40m for the the Ivory Coast international right now, but given Amad's potential, selling him for anything short of £100m is too much of a risk of them living to regret it, having done all the hard work in signing him at such a young age.

    The best thing for Amad and United is another loan move. And it could even involve him continuing to weave his magic for Mowbray and Sunderland. If the Black Cats can win promotion back to the Premier League, then the best thing would be for him to remain at the Stadium of Light. Having finally settled into a team after his problems at Rangers, where better for him to take that next step than at a club where it has all come together for him?

    But it's a big if. Were Sunderland to end up falling short and remain in the Championship, then he should go to another Premier League side. There has been talk of him returning to Serie A, and he would surely do well at a top La Liga outfit, such as Sevilla, Real Sociedad or Villarreal. But if his ultimate destination is United, which it should be, then he should start getting used to the Premier League as soon as possible. As the club have seen with Sancho and experienced a decade earlier with Shinji Kagawa, strong performances on the continent are no guarantee of success in England.

    Having learned the ropes in English football's second tier, Diallo needs to take the next step at either a newly promoted club or a forward-thinking side already in the top flight. Vincent Kompany's Burnley or Fulham would be good starting points.

    With another season under his belt, Diallo can then return to United in the 2024-25 campaign, fully equipped to realise his potential. But making a rash decision to bring him back risks undoing all the progress he has made.