Sofyan Amrabat

Sofyan Amrabat: The 50-mile footballer

Thursday 12 October 2023 08:00

There can be few more frightening places to be in world football than 10 yards away from Kylian Mbappe, as the Frenchman’s lithe, piston-like legs start whirring at the speed of light.

For Sofyan Amrabat, the situation was even worse: his country’s hopes of a place in the World Cup final were hanging by a thread.

“It was 1-0 and I knew, if they made it 2-0, the game was finished,” the midfielder would later tell The Athletic. “We were so near the final. So, yes, I put everything I had into that sprint. That tackle, it was the only way to stop him. It was the perfect tackle. And then I heard the stadium roar. People were celebrating like it was a goal.”

Morocco did not manage to overhaul the reigning world champions’ lead in Al Khor that night, but Amrabat’s meme-worthy takedown of Mbappe became arguably the defining moment of the midfielder’s career to date. A viral calling card reflecting his exceptional tournament in Qatar. And Mbappe? He was forced to change boots, as if unable to erase the stain of such emasculation on a global stage.

Amrabat confident of United improvement


Sofyan knows results will start to come for the Reds more consistently.

It’s generally unwise to draw too many conclusions from brief football clips that become internet sensations but, if you assess Amrabat’s career to date, this short piece of play does seem to reveal two undeniable truths about United’s new recruit.

One, his incredible appetite for graft, and two, his determination to get to where he wants to be. The Morocco international’s path to the kind of prominence that comes with playing for a club like United might have been longer than the one trekked by other players. But now, at the age of 27, Amrabat is here.

“There have been significant transformations and developments,” reflects author of Feet of the Chameleon, The Story of African Football, Ian Hawkey, when asked about Amrabat’s rise.

“He covers an awful lot of ground; he’s got an amazing engine. But that meant that, at times, especially in Holland, he was used in various positions for his versatility, like full-back. And there was a quote during the World Cup from his brother, Nordin, saying that Sofyan grew up wanting to be like Zinedine Zidane and Andres Iniesta before he then started studying players like Yaya Toure and Thiago Motta.

“But I do know that the Morocco head coach, Walid Regragui, had absolutely no hesitation when he came in at short notice, before the World Cup, in saying that this guy is absolutely crucial for the leadership of this team. He devoted a lot of energy and time [to Amrabat]. The story is he went to Florence, putting aside two or three days to sit and talk to Amrabat and talk him through tactics and so on.”

Regragui’s faith was well rewarded in Qatar. Amrabat ran more than anyone else in the entire competition – more than 50 miles. He racked up the most ‘recoveries’ at the tournament too. In the famous victories over Belgium, Spain and Portugal, the midfielder’s industry and intelligence were integral to nullifying gifted opponents like Kevin De Bruyne, Pedri and our own Bruno Fernandes.

“I’m not sure if I can remember, in recent times, a footballer being so catapulted in terms of status by a World Cup,” continues Hawkey. “His place in the hall of fame is assured. The impact of this team, for the whole region and for Africa... the glass ceiling of a World Cup quarter-final was around for so long for African teams. To break that and to get to a semi-final was significant.

“The huge volume of interest in him, based on essentially six games, was quite dramatic. But I think it’s justified, and you couldn’t say he was a journeyman before that. Fiorentina were very good last year, reaching a European final.”

The World Cup undoubtedly thrust Amrabat’s name more conspicuously into the transfer gossip columns but, as Hawkey identifies, the player’s most recent season with Fiorentina backed up the positive impressions.

La Viola reached the finals of both the Coppa Italia and the Europa Conference League, only to be beaten by Internazionale and West Ham United, respectively. Amrabat particularly impressed in the latter match, where he battled well against Declan Rice, in the England international’s final match with the Hammers before a high-profile £100m transfer to Arsenal.

But around Europe, there are many within the game that have long been aware of the combative midfielder’s talents, not least Erik ten Hag. The pair worked together during Amrabat’s formative years at Utrecht, after Sofyan, who was born in the Netherlands, had progressed through the club’s youth system.

“That [working with Ten Hag] was so important for me,” he later said. “It was my second year in the first team. He made a plan for me. He asked me about my strong points and what I wanted to improve. From the first day, he was busy with me. Not only me, all the players. A lot of coaches are busy in general, but he put a lot of time into individual work because he knew if the individual was better, the team would be better.

“After every game, he would take me through a video and explain everything to me. I was 18 or 19 years old, so sometimes I was thinking: ‘Oof, again?’ But now, when I look back, I know it was so important for my career. I learned such a lot from him.”

Subsequent spells at Feyenoord, Club Brugge, Hellas Verona (loan) and the aforementioned Fiorentina further developed the player into the well-rounded leader that took the World Cup by the scruff of its neck.

But it’s perhaps important to note that Amrabat is not just an aggressor, a leader, a fighter – there’s a smart ball-player in there too. In a possession-based Fiorentina side, he ranked in Serie A’s top 10 for completed passes in the opposition’s half, and highly for ‘progressive’ passes (moving the ball into the area, or more than 10 metres goalwards) and carrying the ball forward.

And beyond the stats, there are always the intangibles. Every United fan knows there are no guarantees when it comes to how new personnel will take to Old Trafford – the scrutiny, the standards demanded by past glories, and so on.

But the signs from Amrabat are good. You do not chase down Mbappe, or barge Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the ground (as Amrabat did in one match against Milan) without having a bit of ticker.

The Swede clearly came away impressed; he later named our new no.4 as one of his favourite players in the league. The Premier League will demand new things of Amrabat, and Hawkey is intrigued about how the player will fare on his season-long loan, especially with a crucial Africa Cup of Nations tournament smack-bang in the middle.

“Especially in his position, there is a difference in the tempo, clearly, from where he’s come from,” he surmises. “But he is, to use the old cliche, a very good reader of the game. You’d not hear it said he is slow on the turn or anything, but I’ll be interested to see what happens.

“I’ll also be interested to see how much he plays, because obviously a fit Casemiro is a given for the United first team.

Amrabat starred for Morocco at the 2022 World Cup.

“This year, this season, the Africa Cup of Nations is going to be a massive priority, to show that the World Cup isn’t just a one-off,” Hawkey continues.

“For his generation, it’s important to sustain the momentum and get the other big trophy that is within their scope. Morocco have a really curiously bad history in the Africa Cup of Nations – they’ve only won it once [in 1976]. On paper, if they can play with the effectiveness they showed at the World Cup, they should be getting to the last four at the very least.”

Amrabat’s United debut came in September's 1-0 win at Burnley, where he played the final few minutes from left-back, underlining the versatility that Hawkey noted during those early days in the Eredivisie.

In the coming weeks, United fans will hope that the Moroccan can utilise a little bit of his midfield expertise to help shore up the centre of the field. But whenever and wherever Erik ten Hag chooses to use Amrabat, the Reds clearly have a man desperate to get the job done. Just ask Kylian.

This feature was originally published in United Review, the club's official matchday programme.