Zidane Iqbal: Man Utd's teenage star creating Pogba-level hype

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With a first name like his, footballing expectation levels were always going to be sky-high for Zidane Iqbal. Sharing a name with one of the all-time legends of the game mustn't be easy, even for a player good enough to become a star within the Manchester United academy.

But if United's first two pre-season games are anything to go by, then Iqbal might have a chance of becoming a household name all on his own.

These are still very early days, but the 19-year-old is already making an impression on new United manager Erik ten Hag, as well on the millions of fans who have seen him in action against both Liverpool and Melbourne Victory over the past week.

It is the kind of attention that Iqbal's performances for United since he arrived at the club as a nine-year-old have warranted.

His name likely had something to do with it, but he is one of those rare talents who gained a level of fame among supporters before even making his senior debut, which came in December as a late substitute against Young Boys in the Champions League.

That excitement surrounding his ability has only grown as United have travelled through Thailand and Australia, with social media clips and compilations only serving to feed a growing frenzy.

The levels of excitement surrounding Iqbal are comparable to when another precocious midfielder was emerging from the club’s academy – a certain Paul Pogba. Fans know quality when they see it, and Iqbal’s talent is undeniable.

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While United endeavour to protect their rising starlet, it is a measure of his ability that Ten Hag immediately included him on his first tour since taking over as manager – along with another impressive youth product, Charlie Savage.

And Iqbal’s performances have made it impossible to ignore him, with his drag-back and turn in the 4-1 win against Melbourne Victory having gone viral and then some.

But it is his composure in general that is most encouraging as far as Ten Hag is concerned. He is strong on the ball, with the skill to evade opponents, but also the intelligence to know when not to do too much.

He jealously guards possession in the manner Ten Hag is hoping to instil into United, ensuring a sensible and intelligent use of the ball.

It is when he opens things up, though, that he sends supporters into raptures – and opponents the wrong way. The teenager has produced a number of standout goals for United’s youth teams, regularly showing off a flash of pace and skill to beat opposition defenders before finding the net.

Iqbal’s bravery, meanwhile, is one of the qualities that sets him apart, with his courage having particularly captured the attention of the senior pros he is now sharing a dressing room with.

He has the confidence to show for the ball and keep providing options for his team-mates in a bid to relieve pressure and keep the game moving. It is one thing to do that in age-group football, but quite another to do it at the highest level.

Yet Iqbal showed no signs of being overawed when Ten Hag gave him his chance against Liverpool in Bangkok in United’s 4-0 friendly win.

The teenager was introduced as a second-half substitute and clearly wanted to make an impression, repeatedly dropping into deeper areas so as to get involved in the play.

Invariably he would be surrounded by Liverpool shirts. Invariably he evaded them and retained possession.

United have been quick to secure Iqbal's future, whose father is from Pakistan and his mother from Iraq. He signed his first professional contract in April 2021 – and then a long-term deal in June this year, tying him to the club until 2025, with the option of a further 12 months.

His talent – and marketability as a rare British-Asian playing for a 'Big Six' English club - has been recognised elsewhere, too, with sportswear giant Puma signing him to a boot endorsement within weeks of him turning professional.

Iraq, meanwhile, have secured the youngster's international allegiance, despite him also being eligible to represent England and describing himself as a “proud Mancunian,” who grew up in Whalley Range in the south-west of the city.

United first spotted Iqbal's potential at a very early age, playing for his local team Sale United, and he was taken to the legendary Cliff training ground where United greats, such as Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, had their talents honed.

United's youth coaches certainly seem to have done a good job with him, though Iqbal's basic skills actually came from practising shooting with his father, Aamar, after he had finished playing five-a-side.

Ralf Rangnick was suitably impressed by the player Iqbal has become during his interim spell as manager last season, and Ten Hag invited Iqbal and Savage to be part of his first-team sessions even before they jetted off to the other side of the world.

Iqbal certainly looks like a Ten Hag player, but may have to wait for his time to shine once the squad return to England, with midfield an area the Dutch coach has sought to immediately address in the transfer market with the signing of Christian Eriksen and pursuit of Frenkie de Jong. Donny van de Beek, meanwhile, has returned from his loan spell at Everton to add even more competition.

Iqbal's No.55 shirt, then, is a fair reflection of where he truly lies within the United squad, though his Instagram handle of '@z10dane' offers an insight into his ambitions, if not his footballing hero.

That honour has been bestowed on former Germany, Real Madrid and Arsenal star Mesut Ozil, whose ability to skip past opponents can be seen within Iqbal's game too.

What comes next for Iqbal will be interesting. A loan move this season would be the logical next step for a player that coaches describe as being able to create something out of nothing.

But after the impression he has made on tour, it would be understandable if Ten Hag opted to keep his very own Zidane around for a while longer.

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