The Elliot Embleton insight that will excite Sunderland fans - and the Premier League star he is tipped to emulate
“He was one of the best two footed players I have seen.”
Michael Jolley is reflecting on the first time laid eyes on Elliot Embleton.
It was 2017 and Jolley, then working with Burnley’s under-23 side, welcomed Sunderland in the Premier League Cup. There were some notable names on display that day - not least current Premier League star Dwight McNeil, and Sunderland starlets Josh Maja and Joel Asoro - but there were two men in particular that caught Jolley’s eye.
“We had some good players - the most well-known of which now would be Dwight McNeil - but also lads like Jimmy Dunne and Dan Agyei who have done well in the EFL.
“Sunderland had a good under-23 side and two lads stood out in particular to me – Elliott Embleton and Ethan Robson.
“Embo stood out because of his football intelligence and the fact that he was so two-footed. He is one of the best two footed players I have seen – it’s hard to tell sometimes which is his stronger foot.
“In one-v-one situations he could go in either direction and deliver good quality. He made great decisions in possession and could link the play very intelligently.”
Embleton also caught the eye of Jolley’s soon-to-be-assistant, Anthony Limbrick.
He had observed the youngster while on England duty, and was left with no doubt that he had some real talent at his disposal.
It was no surprise, then, that when Jolley and Limbrick united in the Grimsby Town dugout ahead of the 2018/19 season, they made Embleton a key target.
Grimsby had already tried several times, unsuccessfully, to take Embleton on loan. But as the new campaign bore down, Jolley was alerted to his availability and a deal was quickly struck. Within weeks, he was one of the first names on the teamsheet at Blundell Park.
This season, there is a growing expectation that Embleton will form a key part of Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland side as they look to forge a promotion push.
But what can fans expect to see from the attacking midfielder and, crucially, is he ready for League One football?
Here, we get an insight into Embleton - from two of the coaches who know him best:
AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT
The move to Blundell Park was the first time Embleton had left the Academy of Light during his senior career.
For a young player used to the luxuries afforded by being a part of the Sunderland squad, the drop into League Two - a notoriously physical and demanding division - could have proven a culture shock.
Plenty of players from a higher level have attempted to make their mark in the fourth tier only to succumb to its demands - but Embleton was not one of them.
“Elliot adapted really well,” explains Limbrick.
“He moved the ball quickly, took people on and his decision making was something that stood out for me. He knew when to dribble, he knew when to pass and he was really a creator for us.
“He scored in one of the home games early on and after that he found himself playing every week, barring injury.
“There’s been a lot of good players that come from clubs at a higher level into League Two and just can’t put it together for one reason or another, but Elliot did really well for us.”
The goal Limbrick alludes to came in a defeat to Morecambe, which was just Embleton’s second appearance for the Mariners. His performance in that game quickly convinced the coaching staff that the Sunderland youngster could deal with the rough and tumble of League Two, and soon he was the first name on the team sheet.
“He quickly became the most important player in our team,” adds Jolley.
“He had a confidence which top players have - which was basically him saying ‘give me the ball and I will make things happen for the team’.
“Even better, he was able to back this up because he stood out a mile in League 2 as one the best players in that division. The movements and passes he made were sometimes on a different wavelength to some of the other players we had, no disrespect to them.”
A COMPETITIVE NATURE - AND A DESIRE TO IMPROVE
It wasn’t just on a Saturday afternoon where Embleton was catching the eye, either.
Despite his young age and relative inexperience, he forged a role as one of the more vocal and competitive presences in the dressing room - as Jolley explains.
“Embo wasn’t afraid to give his opinions and despite the fact that there were much more experienced lads in the dressing room, like Danny Collins for example who Sunderland fans will remember.
“Embo always spoke up and gave his opinion. I think everyone fully respected him for that.”
“He’s a very competitive guy,” adds Limbrick.
“He hated to lose in training and he drove the session on himself which we found to be a positive.
“Not all young players do that, they can come in and just survive, but he really looked to thrive and push on in the sessions.”
But while taking on the role of a senior player away from the field, Embleton was keen to keep improving himself on the pitch - and would routinely collar Limbrick to help facilitate this.
“He’d always grab myself to do some extra work afterwards,” says the former Grimsby assistant.
“We’d do some shooting and plenty of extras - he had a great mentality to work hard and develop and I think that’s holding him in good stead now.”
THE PERFECT ROLE
There is a question as to where Embleton could slot into the Sunderland side this term - so where do his former coaches believe he can make the most impact?
“He is such a good player he could play almost anywhere on the field, but I believe his best
long-term position will be in central midfield, where he can exert the maximum influence over the game,” says Jolley.
“He could play as a deep lying midfielder to get involved in the build-up of play, but more likely is he plays as an attacking midfielder with a degree of freedom to roam into wide and forward positions.”
“We were playing 3-5-2 and he played in behind the forwards,” adds Limbrick.
“We found that was a good position for him because it gave him the freedom to drift and float, possibly go wide and combine with the wing-backs, and that worked well with him.”
That’s a verdict that should offer hope for the youngster’s long-term hopes at the Stadium of Light given the club’s recent tactical switch.
But does he have the work rate Parkinson desires? The data certainly suggests so.
It’s telling that Embleton’s distance covered stats were consistently among Grimsby’s top three during his loan spell - with his former manager praising his desire to get stuck into the task at hand, regardless of where he was played.
“He is a willing lad and always applied himself superbly to whatever defensive responsibilities I gave him,” continues Jolley.
“When we played Crystal Palace in the FA Cup in January 2019 I asked him to play man for man against Jeffrey Schlupp and break off him, and he did it brilliantly. We played the whole game with 10 men and Embo nearly equalised for us in the 90th minute.”
IS HE READY FOR LEAGUE ONE?
That’s the crucial question, and one which has been difficult to answer given Embleton’s unfortunate lack of game time last season.
But when posed the question, both of his coaches at Grimsby give a ringing endorsement - and bring out some sterling comparisons.
“I think he could play regularly in League One,” says Limbrick.
“Being in a good side and having good players around him could really help him, and I think his mentality is strong and he’d be able to play in League One.”
“I am 100% convinced that Elliot is more than capable of playing a central role for Sunderland in League One, and beyond,” adds Jolley.
“I know he has had his injury problems last season but if he can stay fit, Sunderland have an outstanding young player at their disposal and I wouldn’t bet against him securing a regular starting position for them next season.
“I referenced Dwight McNeil earlier and having been lucky enough to work really closely with him, I believe that Embo is comparable. He’s still very young and has plenty of learning still to do, but with his talent and attitude I believe he can play in the Premier League later in his career.”