When the Red Devils departed for their tour of the Far East, few expected that Zidane Iqbal would return as one of the standout performers from United’s squad.
Yet in his first game of the tour – against United’s most difficult opponents – the teenager showed he was not just there to make up numbers.
Zidane Iqbal is one of the most talented players in Manchester United’s academy right now. He made history on his debut, becoming the first British South Asian to play in the Champions League, and for the club.
In many ways it felt like Iqbal left for the tour a boy, and returned a man. His performances have put him right on the radar of United fans and the club is now set to keep him rather than loan him out.
So with Iqbal staying at Old Trafford for the 2022/23 season, what does this upcoming year hold for the 19-year-old, and could he even break into Erik ten Hag’s first team?
One of the first things that stood out about Iqbal’s game on this pre-season tour – he has maturity far beyond his years.
Both with and without the ball, he exudes footballing intelligence. Whether it’s his decision making with the ball or his understanding of how to position himself without it, you wouldn’t think he’s just 19.
Throughout pre-season, he has played in the right sided central midfield spot in United’s double pivot. Who is United’s best option here remains quite unclear.
The right central midfielder in the pivot has throughout this season often been seen operating in higher pockets and supporting Jadon Sancho out on the right.
Immediately, this feels like a role well suited to Zidane Iqbal. His ability to receive the ball and position himself is excellent, he is comfortable in tight spaces and offers a clever array of passes and tricks to aid United’s creation.
This description is a complete opposite of what United’s current starter in the role, Scott McTominay, offers when United have possession.
The advantage McTominay has in this role over Iqbal, as well as Donny van de Beek and new signing Christian Eriksen, is that he is physically stronger and more solid defensively.
Van de Beek is very much a wildcard. Off the ball, he is probably United’s best player. On it, however, he can struggle to impose himself on games and he is physically not the strongest. He best suits a shadow striker role.
Eriksen is probably United’s best option in this role at present and has experience in a deeper midfield role, but given his specific health requirements he will only be able to play so much in what is due to be an incredibly busy season.
Iqbal clearly impressed Ten Hag in pre-season, and will get opportunities in the cup games to partner Fred in United’s midfield next season, with it being unclear whether Frenkie de Jong will join or not.
Taking a look to the future, and Ten Hag was brought in for a long-term rebuild, some impressive performances in these games could give the teenager Iqbal a chance in United’s first team now.
With the way the Dutchman’s side has operated so far in pre-season, a Fred-Iqbal pivot would certainly fit what Ten Hag has asked for so far, with Fred in his deeper role.
While it would be a risk to start off with, and Fred-Eriksen the better option, if Iqbal impresses throughout the season then come the end of the season fans could be seeing Iqbal in the lineup on a regular basis. Zidane Iqbal has traveled to Oslo with a plethora of other first teamers for United’s friendly against Atlético Madrid on Saturday.