Zidane Iqbal caused a great deal of hope among Manchester United fans during the club’s preseason tour, impressing against the likes of Liverpool as he showed Erik ten Hag that he could potentially develop into an ideal alternative to FC Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong.
The Red Devils spent the entirety of their summer transfer window chasing the Dutch playmaker but were rebuffed by the player, who has since gone on to establish himself under Xavier Hernandez.
It is fairly obvious what drew Ten Hag to De Jong. A metronomic passer with fantastic agility and balance, able to play on the half turn against the most aggressive of presses, the former Ajax midfielder could have brought composure and class to United’s team.
But there is no reason to think that Iqbal cannot bring those same qualities to Old Trafford, given half a chance.
The Iraqi oozed class out on tour, having the gall to Cruyff-turn Liverpool’s first-choice midfielders and dribble through the centre of the pitch on numerous occasions during Ten Hag’s maiden game in charge. He continued to impress in subsequent wins over Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace, but naturally saw his opportunities to impress diminish as the tour went on, with Ten Hag concentrating on getting his first-team regulars up to speed ahead of the season.
Since then, the 19-year-old has yet to feature in the senior side but has continued to show his ability in the Under 21s, earning praise from manager Travis Binnion in the team’s recent 4-0 defeat to Bolton Wanderers’ first team, in particular for his role in defensive midfield.
“He played there last week with the first team, and I think his involvement in the first team has primarily been in that deeper role,” Binnion told the Manchester Evening News. “He excels with the ball, and he’s got really good game understanding.
“He’s obviously still got work to do, but you can see the benefits and the progress in his game from being around the first team on a regular basis, so yeah, I thought he did a lot of good things [against Bolton]. He’s fearless, so he’ll take the ball anywhere.
“He’s got really good technique and awareness. I also think he retained the ball well tonight under pressure. It’s all well and good taking it, but you have to make sure there’s an outcome with it and he’s improving in that.
“I thought out of possession, it was difficult for the whole team, and he stood up to that and did a lot of good things with. He’s progressing really nicely, and I think he’s had a fantastic week in terms of finding out where he’s at in the three games he’s played in quick succession.”
That sort of regular action, with the games coming in thick and fast, will no doubt be good preparation for the teenager as he readies himself for the inevitable call up to the first team.
Physicality can often prove to be the biggest barrier to young players stepping up to the seniors and that goes doubly for those thrown into the cauldron that is a Premier League midfield battle. And while Iqbal is relatively tall, stamina and strength are important factors to consider, even for a player blessed with his level of grace.
It is perhaps what is keeping him out of the first team reckoning at this stage, particularly with Ten Hag’s revolution still in its infancy and every game still being played on a knife edge.
But the playmaker’s qualities are undeniable and the tactical understanding he has demonstrated by moving from the number ten position into a deeper role have certainly caught the attention of his coaches.
His performances against Cadiz and Real Betis during Man United’s not-so-warm weather training camp will also have ensured that Ten Hag keeps Iqbal in his thoughts ahead of the Carabao Cup clash with Burnley next Wednesday.
A number of senior players are likely to need match fitness in that fixture, with the likes Donny van de Beek and Scott McTominay not involved in the World Cup, while Fred featured only sporadically before Brazil were sent home early by Croatia. But there is a solid argument to be made that, under Ten Hag, Iqbal has impressed more than any of those players and could be in line for minutes against Vincent Kompany’s side.
Even if he does not get them against Burnley, he will no doubt find his breakthrough sooner rather than later, given his particular skillset. None of the aforementioned trio offer much by way of ball progression – something Ten Hag clearly demands from his deeper midfielders.
Even world-class volante Casemiro is hardly known for moving the ball between the lines, and to ask it of Bruno Fernandes would immediately diminish United’s threat in the final third, where the Portugal star is at his most effective. Only Christian Eriksen is capable of progressing the ball reliably from deeper areas of the pitch and, as seen in the run up to the World Cup, asking him to do it two or three times every week is a recipe for an inevitable build-up of fatigue.
It is notable that on the few occasions that Eriksen wasn’t available, or when he was withdrawn, Man United’s entire structure became laborious, their attack toothless. This was never more evident that the drab 0-0 draw with Newcastle United, a match in which United mustered just two shots on target and were forced into a series of hopeful long-range efforts and aimless crosses.
That ability to progress the ball with purpose is a hallmark of Zidane Iqbal’s game, only he goes about it in an entirely different way to Eriksen. The Dane uses his passing range to unsettle defences, whereas the Iraqi takes the Frenkie de Jong approach – he dribbles to disorganise the opposing structure.
It takes a fearlessness on the ball that Iqbal incorporated into his game at an early age due to his love of futsal, something he believes has helped him develop his game.
“The ball is smaller and doesn’t bounce as much,” he told the club’s official website. “The nets are smaller but it’s very technical, even the keeper can come out and make it 5v4 when you’re in possession. There’s nowhere to hide in futsal because the pitch is so small. If you do hide, you’ll be a man down, if you don’t want the ball. You’ve got to be brave, take on your man and that’s helped me a lot.”
That attitude is evident in his playstyle and something the United midfield often lacks. McTominay has often been accused – often pretty fairly – of hiding when his team is in possession, while Fred can at times make the ball look like a hot potato. The less said about the version of Van de Beek that Manchester United have seen in this regard, the better.
Even ball-progressor-in-chief Eriksen will not be making many mazy runs through the middle any time soon as it simply isn’t his game. What Iqbal can offer Ten Hag is what he wanted from De Jong – a runaway train that causes panic for the opposition and opportunity for his teammates.
It seems only a matter of time before Iqbal gets his chance to bring his unique skillset to a packed Old Trafford and his outlook is only likely to hasten it.
“No-one’s career is going to be the same as any other. Everyone has their ups and downs, it’s how you bounce back and retaliate from all the downs. When you’re up, you know you’re going to come down eventually, so you just have to enjoy the moments. When I look back on what I’ve done so far, I remember the days when it was tough and now I look back with a smile.”
Zidane Iqbal will surely soon be giving fans plenty of reason to smile.