Pace, power and versatility: The exciting Manchester United and Hearts verdict on Sunderland triallist Demetri Mitchell
In his search for competition on the left flank, Phil Parkinson has turned to Demetri Mitchell.
A graduate of Manchester United’s famed academy, the 23-year-old comes with a strong pedigree, and first-team experience in Scotland via a loan spell with Hearts.
He is currently on trial at the Academy of Light and is known to have made a strong impression since the Black Cats’ return to training.
But what could Sunderland fans expect from the full-back were he to put pen to paper?
We spoke to two journalists who have watched the youngster regularly to get their views on Mitchell’s strengths, weaknesses – and whether he would prove a good acquisition for Sunderland:
The Manchester United view
Mitchell’s exit from Old Trafford brought to an end a promising career - which back in 2017, looked as if it may have no limit.
The full-back was a winger when he joined United as a youngster, having played for local side Fletcher Moss Rangers - the same club who nurtured Marcus Rashford during his early years.
But the exit of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson on loan saw Mitchell converted to a full-back to plug the gap for United’s under-23s. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
Indeed, it was in that position that the youngster first caught the eye of the first-team management, then led by Jose Mourinho.
“He impressed in that position but it was his versatility that probably made him an attractive choice for then-first team manager Jose Mourinho,” says Harry Robinson, the founder of Academy Man Utd.
“Mitchell trained with the first team a lot and was involved in a couple of travelling squads before his debut.
“His debut was the last game of the season for United in 2017. They beat Crystal Palace and Mourinho handed debuts to a huge number of academy graduates.
“Scott McTominay is the only one who has become a first team fixture. Mitchell stayed with United after that game and there was definitely a feeling that he had a chance at the club.”
But that proved to be Mitchell’s only first-team outing for the Red Devils.
So why didn’t he make more of a mark on the senior set-up?
Much is down to the injuries he sustained during two loan spells at Hearts, hampering his progression and opportunities for regular game time.
By the time he returned to full fitness, the picture was very different at Old Trafford - as Robinson explains.
“At that point, Solskjaer was manager and when Mitchell returned to training in September 2019, Brandon Williams was already starting to make himself known and made his debut at the end of that month.
“From that point there wasn’t much space for Mitchell.”
It was little surprise when the 23-year-old was released upon the expiration of his contract this summer, but those who have religiously watched United’s second string over the last few years remain convinced that Mitchell can make a mark at his new club.
“I think he’s ready for first-team football, yes,” admits Robinson.
“But not ready to step up to Manchester United’s first team football. That’s why he’s been released.
“Nevertheless, there are countless tales of released United players who have carved out really impressive careers for themselves.
“The best example in recent times is probably Ben Pearson at Preston or even Nick Powell at Stoke. There are loads of others too. I hope Mitchell does well wherever he signs.”
So what can Sunderland fans expect to see if the full-back does put pen to paper on a deal at the Stadium of Light?
“Over the lockdown period, he bulked up a lot as many footballers did,” says Robinson.
“He looks stronger than ever before and that’s a good use of his time. He’s still quite lean and so the decent pace which he has shouldn’t be negatively affected by a bit of extra weight and strength.
“He is quick and always has been. He was a winger before he was a left-back and can play in both positions.
“He’s got that tricky style where he can squirm away from his opposite number. As a defender, again, we’ve not seen much of him in that position at United for a long time. It’s always natural for a couple of weaknesses to be obvious for converted wingers. But he should be able to improve on any pretty quickly.”
The Hearts view
While he may have only made a sole senior appearance for United, Mitchell did gain some valuable first-team experience during two separate loan spells at Hearts.
Injuries may have limited him to 29 appearances across two spells, but that proved ample time for him to make an impression on the Tynecastle faithful.
“He made a really positive impact,” says Joel Sked, a journalist with the Edinburgh Evening News.
“Left-back had been a problem position for the club before he arrived. Despite playing just 11 times [during his first loan spell] he was well liked and when he was re-signed the following season there was plenty of excitement amongst fans.
“There have been plenty of Academy footballers come up to Scotland with the belief that it'll be easy, then they get a fright. Hearts have had a few. But not Mitchell.
“The pace of the game suited him and he wasn't put off by the physicality.”
That insight should bode well for Sunderland, with one of the major concerns over any young player whether they can handle the rigmirol of League One.
Another promising aspect of Mitchell is his ability to play as a wing-back - a prerequisite for whoever arrives as a left-sided defender this summer, given Parkinson’s preferred system.
“He was at his best when he was a left-back with the experience of Christophe Berra beside him who could cover that area when he went forward,” says Sked.
“Berra, however, was injured in his second spell and then when he came back he wasn't quite the same player.
“Looking at his qualities he is a wing-back for me.
“The big thing was pace and directness,” he adds.
“Hearts were a pretty slow team but Mitchell gave the team much-needed speed, acceleration and directness on the wings.
“In addition he had a dangerous left foot as seen with a fine goal in the cup against St Johnstone and while his crossing could be erratic he would often play it with pace.
“In the second season defensive vulnerability became more evident.
“I think he can be a good one on one defender but positionally suspect at times and some of the basics of defending need improvement, when to tuck in, when to clear the lines.
“But it has to be remembered this is a player who hasn't played the role for a long time.”
What next for Mitchell and Sunderland?
With the new financial pressures facing Sunderland, there is a growing belief that Parkinson may turn to Mitchell to offer competition for Denver Hume in the new campaign.
It is no secret that the Black Cats made Luke Garbutt a target in the early weeks of the transfer window, but the introduction of the League One salary cap has put that deal on the back-burner for now.
Mitchell has made a positive impression during his time on trial and could prove a cost-effective option - and one which may not hinder Hume’s own development, as was the fear with Garbutt.
The chances are that Parkinson may want to see Mitchell in a game before making a firm decision either way on his future at Sunderland - but this insight certainly suggests there is plenty to be positive about should the former Manchester United man put pen to paper.