A successful loan deal is often a delicate balance. Expectations must be managed when assessing how a young player has performed in a new environment, as often a negative experience can be as formative to a young footballer as a positive one. The contrasting experiences of Amad Diallo and Hannibal Mejbri in the Championship last season exemplify this viewpoint.
Manchester United found the perfect home for Diallo in the North. Sunderland have sought to establish the Stadium of Light as a haven for development; the ideal place for big clubs to send their talented youngsters on loan, safe in the knowledge the club will nurture their talent rather than exploit it.
Tony Mowbray, the man entrusted to manage this team of youthful exuberance, has a long history within English football as a progressive manager who prioritises development. The result was a breakout year for Amad, scoring fourteen goals and providing four assists as he lead Sunderland into an unlikely playoff run and earned a nomination for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award. Sunderland embraced Amad and he, in turn, embraced the club and city back.
Mejbri endured a different experience in the Midlands. The Tunisian midfielder relocated from Manchester to Birmingham, placed in the heart of the midfield of one of the most negative teams in the Championship.
John Eustace, Mejbri’s new manager, espoused a direct style of football which placed little emphasis on possession or progression of the ball. As such, there was often little room for Mejbri to display the more technical side of his game, instead being asked to provide hard yards and hard tackles in the centre of the pitch. Some youngsters may have shied away in such circumstances, yearning for a return to the comforts of top-level football. Mejbri did not.
The midfielder played thirty-eight times under Eustace in the league, providing a goal and five assists. For a team which only scored forty-eight goals with the ball barely touching the ground, they are reasonable returns. Particularly when considering Mejbri’s energy and combativeness were the attributes his manager was asking the midfielder to focus on.
The youngster’s teammates were equally appreciative of his efforts. Juninho Bacuna, Mejbri’s fellow midfielder, spoke of the qualities the United loanee possessed earlier in the season following an impressive performance in a 2-0 win away to Hull:
‘“He’s a good player – he likes to play with the ball, make runs and he’s good for what the team needs. He’s young, got loads of energy and he’ll keep going for 90 minutes and that’s good for the team.”
A young midfielder arriving on loan from a club as such as Manchester United will naturally be talented with the ball. Ranking in the 91st percentile for assists and the 85th for progressive passes, Mejbri is proficient at helping to link play between defence and attack. He also ranks in the 87th percentile for progressive passes received, indicating intelligent movement with his team mates trusting him with the ball.
Yet it is this energy and enthusiasm without the ball, as Bacuna praises above, which are the more impressive aspects of Mejbri’s Midlands experience. They indicate a willingness to sacrifice for the team and an appreciation of the context he finds himself in; a league with no room for egos.
The Championship is a baptism by fire as introductions to English football go. What it may lack in skill, it more than makes up for in terms of physicality and fast-paced football. It is, therefore, the ideal setting for a talented youngster to test themselves in. Skilful midfielders who have recently used the league as a vital stepping stone, include Mason Mount, Conor Gallagher and Harvey Elliott. The mantra of if you can successfully swim in the Championship, you will at least be able to tread water in the Premier League holds a lot of truth.
While the Ivory Coast international’s experience in Sunderland constituted something of an elaborate freestyle stroke, with a highlight reel of fabulous finishing and scrumptious skill, Mejbri’s time in Birmingham was more a steady backstroke – a rigid experience which develops discipline and a strong spine.
Both players may have developed the requisite skills to survive, and thrive, in the Premier League but Mejbri’s progression will have been subtler than Amad. At a cursory glance it may seem like the Tunisian did not develop at all and that United may need to decide whether his long-term future lies in Manchester at all.
According to the Manchester Evening News, Borussia Dortmund are willing to offer a fee in the region of €15million to secure Mejbri’s services. Manchester United are reportedly constrained by Financial Fair Play regulations this summer and their outgoing transfers are as important as their incoming ones. The club may be tempted to cash in on the talented youngster in order to generate funds for other areas of the pitch, particularly with the recent purchase of midfielder Mason Mount, as reported by The Peoples Person here.
It would, however, be short-sighted to accept such a deal. Mejbri is a talented footballer who United have already invested significant money to acquire. The midfielder was only 16 when he was signed for a fee of around €5 million, potentially rising to €10 million with add-ons, from Monaco; a significant fee for a player so young, but one that underscores the reputation he had already developed. He quickly progressed through United’s youth system, playing regularly for the U23s by 17 and winning the Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year in 2021.
At international level his talents have been similarly recognised. Having declared for Tunisia in May 2021, Mejbri played at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup where his country progressed to the final of the competition, losing to Algeria at the last hurdle. Mejbri would put in two man-of-the-match performances en route to the final however.
There is little doubt about Mejbri’s talent. The fact that Borussia Dortmund are interested in him should be an immediate warning sign to Manchester United that this is not a player to lose, such is the German club’s prestigious track record of securing the services of talented youngsters. Another loan is the best option for Mejbri, not a permanent exit.
More careful deliberation must be made, however, when selecting his next destination. A club, and manager, who value development as well as seek to implement a progressive style of football are prerequisites for this. Diallo flew in Sunderland, yet the year before he was sinking while in Glasgow. The diminutive forward experienced a tough time on loan at Rangers where he featured sporadically under the stewardship of a manager who did not have patience for development. This experience, however, was evidently formative for Diallo such was the increase in performance, productivity and physicality he demonstrated a year later at the Stadium of Light.
Mejbri may have just finished his formative ‘Rangers-style’ experience in the Midlands where it appeared he struggled to get off the ground. His next loan, with careful selection, could be the one which sees the Tunisian soar in the manner his Ivorian teammate did. United should send Mejbri away in the short-term to ensure his long-term future remains in Manchester; he’s too talented a player to allow otherwise.