It is May 2016. The scene is the AFAS Stadion, home of AAS Alkmaar, and one of the most promising young talents in Dutch football is watching from the sidelines.
Robin Pronk has spent more than a decade in the youth system at Ajax, a club that prides itself on having a product line that is the envy of the entire football world. Helped by Danish internationals Christian Eriksen and Daley Blind who have made more than 100 appearances for the Netherlands.
But on this day, Pronk was part of the set-up at FC Utrecht, where he was a future manager named Erik ten Haag.
Utrecht’s U21 AZ were playing in Belfton Eredivisie. With the Under-21 Championship on the line, it was their biggest game of the season and one player in particular looked determined to make an impact on the outcome.
“That game really stands out,” Pronk said. “We won 2-0. It was for the trophy and in such matches big players always stand up and make a difference. That day was very important for us. His thinking was always to be on the big stage.
That player was Sofiane Amrabat, a 19-year-old who showed potential in a career that made him a superstar at last year’s World Cup and subsequently linked him to Ten Hag at Manchester United.
Amrabat wore the number 44 for Utrecht’s under-21 side. Unlike now, he had a full head of hair. Instead of sporting his familiar beard, he was clean-shaven and made his first-team debut as an 18-year-old two seasons ago.
“We had two talented midfielders at the same time,” recalls Rob Alflen, then Utrecht’s first-team coach. “One of them is Sofia, which is built on power. Another technical player of different character was Bart Ramselaar.
The first time we were called was Bart and since then I’ve been having a hard time with Sophia. ‘Coach, why didn’t I get a chance? Why not me?’ Sometimes it can be a war. Day in, day out, he was knocking on my door.
“In the beginning, I could tell him, ‘Sofian, you’re not good enough to start every game, you were a very strong player for the youth team, but you need to get stronger because now you’re playing with the adults.’
“But it was hard to leave him. You have some players, those natural talents, who train really hard, maybe once every two weeks.
“Then you have players who work hard every day. They work from the moment they arrive and when the coach says training starts at 10:30 in the morning, they come in at 9 and work until they get home. It was Sofia.”
What United get from Amrabat: Tempo control, game changers and lots of runs
When Amrabat pulled up a chair at Fiorentina’s training ground and spoke to The Athletic earlier this year, it was immediately clear that he holds Ten Hag in high esteem.
“It was very important to me,” he said of Ten Hague’s appointment in Utrecht. “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 obsessed with me.
“After every game he would videotape me and explain everything to me. I was 18 or 19, so sometimes I was like, ‘Oh, again?’ I was thinking. But now that I look back, I know it was very important to my career. I learned a lot from him.
Of course. Ten Haag was unapologetically oft-quoted – “Good is not good, you have to be even better” – and Dutch writer Maarten Meijer used that line in the cover of his biography of the United manager.
Sometimes the young generation needs a reminder to push themselves further. Ten hags were on the case. So were others.
“To be honest, Sofia wasn’t working hard at first,” recalls Pronk, who was Utrecht’s under-19 manager. “When he was 15 or 16 years old, he had to understand that he had to work a little harder to succeed.
“It was only a few years later, with the support of his older brother (Nordin) and his coaches, that he opened his eyes. He was open to learning, he had a great family around him and that’s when he started that transition to a professional perspective and that’s when he developed his potential.
Whatever was said for Amrabat, something clicked in his career, taking him to clubs in four different countries and bringing it to life at the age of 27 when he scored a half-century for the Moroccan national team.
“He also had the example of his brother being a professional soccer player,” says Alphonse. “Sofian always felt that he should go as far as his brother. This brought its own pressure. Some people, when faced with that pressure, find it so overwhelming that they can’t do anything about it. Sofian, on the other hand, has shown that he can handle pressure and turn it to his advantage.
His older brother, Nordin, who is nine years older, spent two years at Watford and made 64 appearances for Morocco after proving a nomadic life with clubs in the Six Nations.
The Amrabat brothers show old footage of their father Mohamed working as a plasterer at their playground in the Dutch town of Huizen before settling in a country with a large Moroccan population.
Nordin is a quick and direct winger who runs at opponents and, like Sofia, turned down the chance to represent the Netherlands to play for Morocco instead.
Sofiane has a different personality: quick on the ball, strong in the tackle, a level of competitive courage that Kylian Mbappe will remember well from France’s World Cup semi-final against Morocco last year.
In 1970, Bobby Moore chased down Mbappe in England’s 1970 effort against Jairzinho to win the ball away from the French football superstar, and his heroics may have been the most spectacularly executed defense at the World Cup.
After the game, he went into the Moroccan dressing room and told Amrabat that he was the most encouraging player he had seen in the tournament.
Amrabat ran more at the World Cup – 81.4 kilometers (50.6 miles) – than any other player and embodied the spirit of the Moroccan team, which became the first African nation to reach the semi-finals.
Before four of Morocco’s seven games, he needed painkillers due to recurring back pain and slept through the night in deep depression before Spain conceded a penalty.
Amrabat, in other words, passed what might be called the Roy Keane test. No one can accuse him of not putting on a shift, not taking responsibility, not being serious. It never goes away.
In Italy, a story goes back to his time on loan at Hellas Verona, when the player gave so much to the team – outshining everyone, rarely being replaced, showing 20-hour round trips to Morocco games in Africa. It should be a break for coach Ivan Juric.
“Give him a break?” Juric shouted. “Sofia will stay on the field until he passes.”
Had Todd Bohley had his way, Amrabat would have been wearing Chelsea colors instead of introducing himself to Old Trafford in United’s 3-0 Carabao Cup win over Crystal Palace on Tuesday.
Boyle, who drives Chelsea’s scattered gun recruitment, called Fiorentina in the final few hours of the January transfer window, but it was a brief conversation as the Italians did not impress another club who were late to take one. Most valuable assets.
Barcelona were already in the ascendancy and threatened to turn ugly for a while. Amrabat missed a training session, writing a message on Instagram that seemed intended for Barca’s attention – “Go now. I’m not making promises to anyone in the future” – and reportedly had to apologize to Fiorentina when the deal fell through.
The player wanted the transfer to go through, according to people close to him. He wanted a crack at the big time and thought he might have missed out on a chance to compete for the big prize with Europe’s top clubs.
After all, he’s had moments in his career where that distance feels overwhelming. No one would describe Amrabat as a late-developer as he played for Utrecht as a teenager, but there were times in the early parts of his career and the 2018 World Cup when Morocco made the team and Amrabat was limited in the game. A 14-minute appearance as a substitute. It was a far cry from what happened in Qatar four years later.
Amrabat’s first move was to Feyenoord for £3.5m (£4.3m) in 2017, but it didn’t go so well and a year later his price dropped to £2.2m when he moved to Belgium. He made six 90-minute appearances in the Belgian top division in his lone season for Club Brugge.
It was his move to Verona for the 2019-20 season that put his career back on the upswing. Amrabat quickly established himself as a first-team regular, helping the Serie A-promoted side finish top of the table, beating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and surprising everyone in the process.
“It’s the biggest surprise of my life,” Juric said of the man who won the club’s player of the year award. “We all thought he was just a physical midfielder, but he has shown great tactical depth to his game. He thought about the jersey, his teammates and the coaching staff.
“Everywhere I’ve worked I’ve always been in the queue, there were a lot of queues in Verona, but when we signed Amrabat it changed our season. He will play until he dies.”
Amrabat has taken his time settling in after joining Fiorentina in a £17.4m deal the following season. His first manager, Giuseppe Ichini, wanted him to play as an orthodox number 6, occupying a deep position in front of the defense.
Vincenzo Italiano took over at the start of the 2021-22 season and appointed Lucas Torrera in the role. Amrabat was frustrated again before establishing himself in the team and leading La Viola to the Coppa Italia and Europa League finals last season.
Whether United theoretically starts in midfield or is given permission to move inside and play in a more modern defensive role, he should benefit from his approach in every role. Amrabat has spent enough time playing in the Netherlands that the Dutch philosophy is that giving the ball away is a sin.
Above all else, he likes to be involved: he completed more passes (65) than Scott McTominay (49) did in 203 minutes against Palace in the first half. Voice.
The key, perhaps, will be finding the right balance for Amrabat to fit in with his new teammates. “He (Andrea) is not a Pirlo-like player,” Italiano said. “He has a different skill set and needs top quality 8s around him.”
Fortunately for Ten Hag, Amrabat is impatient to break into the first team and it will come as no surprise if he looks back on his early days at Utrecht if he regrets being beaten by another player from the youth academy.
Ramselaar’s performance at Utrecht led to a move to PSV Eindhoven where they won the Dutch league title and scored 3 appearances for the Netherlands. For a while, the growth seemed to make him, not the city’s success story.
“In the end, he[Ramselaar]is back in Utrecht and he’s on the bench,” says Alphonse. “On the other hand, Sofia played a fantastic World Cup and went to Manchester United.
“It’s a reminder that not only talented players can reach the top. Sometimes they can be players with unique thinking and will power. Because this is what Sofia is talking about. He has such a huge mindset, ‘get out there, work hard, keep going’. He was always fighting and I mean that in a good way.
That’s what he brings to Manchester United: his energy, but also mentally, his willpower.
Additional reporting: James Horncastle
(Top photos: Getty Images)