Dylan Levitt completed his move to Scottish Premiership side Dundee United F.C. on a season-long loan recently. The 20-year old Welshman from the South of Rhyl is one of Manchester United’s most prodigious graduates to come out of its academy set up along with his partner, James Garner. But he has gone under the radar recently after a couple of quiet loan spells.
The Center-Midfielder who debuted for Manchester United in Europe wasn’t expecting to go to a country far away from England in search of first-team football. But, circumstances changed. He wanted to experience a new environment and stay unique to the plans as the focus was to always prove himself and excel at Manchester United in the near future.
Today, we will be sharing with you the inside story of Dylan Levitt’s spell at Croatian First League side NK Istra. A story that most of us need to know. Here, we will be focusing on the reasoning/logic behind this particular move and also about his life at the club. Also, we will be giving some insights on United’s relationship with Istra, foreign club relationships, and a connection to Facundo Pellistri’s loan move to Deportivo Alaves as well.
I was joined by the brilliant Filip Mishov, a Macedonian journalist to help with this story. He is a huge Manchester United fan and owns one of the biggest Manchester United based fan pages in Macedonian language since 2013 called ‘Manchester Is My Heaven’. Through this project, he was able to experience United play against several teams like Real Madrid, Partizan Belgrade and made contacts with a few people and journalists close to the club. He has also contributed to various publications like BBC World Service, The Guardian, ESPN, and many others. Recently, he was the North Macedonia National Team’s football correspondent for The Athletic UK as part of their UEFA EURO 2020 coverage.
Firstly, let’s look into the main reason behind Levitt’s move to Croatia. A few people from the industry haven’t really understood the case in a deeper manner. Levitt got selected into Wales EURO 2020 provisional squad and his position was in jeopardy due to limited game time after spending the first half of the season on loan at Charlton Athletic. This way, his move to Istra started to take heat during the January transfer window.
“He faced a situation where he could’ve sat with the U23 or moved to another country and experience senior football and experience a different culture,” said Filip after following his footsteps closely during his time at Istra. “ Although he joined the club [Istra] in late January, his end goal for the season was reached. Not only was he a part of the final squad for Wales but also played a few minutes in one of their games.”
It felt like a bold move for some people, especially agents close to Dylan Levitt. But getting first-team minutes was more important than anything else he ever wanted. “If you ask Dylan Levitt if the move to Croatia was beneficial to him and his development, he would definitely say yes.”He took a big step out of his comfort zone as he was brave enough to make the move and try something else. And that is tough for every player. ”
This is not the first time we are seeing a similar approach in England but it is refreshing from an academy graduate at Manchester United.“ Only a few like Jadon Sancho showed the initiative to take up such challenges. I like this attitude from such a player and don’t believe that many players in England would take such a step to do that, ” said Filip after seeing Sancho’s move to Manchester United happen this season after spending a few years at Borussia Dortmund.
But the move to Croatia was quite unexpected in terms of the way United dealt with outgoings, especially with loan deals. Things started to accelerate pretty quickly towards the end of the winter transfer window. “I know one of his representatives who was involved in this deal. After hearing noises from sources in Croatia, I contacted him and suddenly he neither confirmed nor denied that a move was happening imminently, so he told me that things were going well,” said Filip after he broke the news through social media. “ This move was Levitt’s choice in the end in pursuit of proper minutes. And I came to know that there wasn’t a viable option from the Championship at that moment.”
Secondly, the players’ willingness to adapt to a different ecosystem played a major role to exhibit a successful loan spell at Istra. “ A lot of people don’t know much about the footballing dynamics in the Balkan region. Seeing from Levitt’s perspective, he is going to a place like Croatia for the first time probably to meet some teammates that he hasn’t heard of.”
Things weren’t easy at all in the beginning. Filip talked more about it from the perspective of a player who comes to a new country far away from his homeland: “He isn’t speaking the local language and that made him alone in order to tackle tough situations in the country. It’s about little things like buying goods from a shop next to the place where he stays and the shopkeeper doesn’t understand what he wants”. It took more than a month to get used to the surroundings, culture, and everything else.
“He started to play after a month and a half after signing for Istra, as he was trying to get used to their pitch and training facilities. In the end, he played around 10 games in which he was a starter 4-5 times, so it definitely took time but in the end, he got a good experience” tells Filip, who optimistically felt that Levitt benefited a lot from this move.
Thirdly, the competition suited Dylan Levitt’s more technical playing style as written by my colleague Steven Donovan. He was one of the best at the academy for finding the right line-breaking passes and linking up well with his teammates especially in a possession-based set-up.
Being a close observer of football in the Balkan region, Filip had a lot of good things to say about the league’s quality and how it suited Levitt: “In terms of the Croatian league, it is the best in the Balkans in terms of quality. There are a lot of young players at the international level from countries like Spain who played here to establish themselves. It’s a mixture of technical football from Spain and the hard tackles from Italy.”
The next point was even more convincing after looking at a few examples of players who were a success playing in Croatia. “ When I talked about Dylan Levitt, I put Dani Olmo into the same bracket”, said Filip after experiencing both the players while covering EURO 2020 for The Athletic.
In fact, the Spanish international and La Masia product took a step back and played for Dinamo Zagreb before getting his move to Leipzig in Germany. “ Now he is playing a pivotal role in Spain’s attack and did well during their Euros. So from this example, you can tell that it’s definitely a technical league.
“ Some may disagree with the quality of the league but if you look at the depth of the Croatian national team i.e. from the first team to U18, there is so much talent in terms of tactically intellectual players and more Spanish as well as English clubs are scouting this league for talents. A couple of years ago, Manchester City bought a player from Hajduk Split, one of the biggest clubs in Croatia named Palaversa. And try to mold these players into their first team. Another one is young Man City player Stevanovic(Partizan Belgrade) who was also developed in a similar environment.”, said Filip who rates the league highly for many valid reasons like the ones we discussed above.
Importantly, NK Istra as a team wanted contributions from a quality player like Dylan Levitt. It was more about ‘survival’ than progress to the next stage like UEFA Champions League qualification. Istra was facing a relegation battle after the first half of the season. Filip explained it in a detailed manner: “ Relegation battles in the Balkans are completely different when compared to the top 5 leagues in Europe. The pressure is a lot higher in this region for clubs to survive in league competitions where a good amount of tension is injected by the owners, coaches, players, and fans.
“Even with Covid restrictions in the country, fans visited their training sessions and gave support to the team in the final stages of the league which enabled them to gain strength and achieve 5 or 6 wins in a row that took them out of the relegation zone into safety. If Istra or any others get relegated, then the local players and coaches come to a situation where they lose their jobs and go to a state where they get rejected by other teams playing in the first division. This might even lead them to quit their careers in football as the opportunity to thrive is less when moved outside the first division.”
It was not just physical development but more mental toughness which was needed to guarantee success in the Croatian league. “ One thing that players get from this atmosphere is the mental toughness because in Croatia each and every footballer is coming from a working-class background and their life depends on winning each game that they play in the league”, said Filip after experiencing the league from a younger age.
Being ardent followers of Manchester United, we discussed more about the changes or developments of the club’s partnership with other foreign clubs to help players from the academy get opportunities similar to that of Dylan Levitt’s abroad. Filip said, “ Manchester United and many other big clubs from the UK will benefit from forming strategic partnerships with a club outside of the UK to develop players and I believe in the past that was the case with Antwerp during the Fergie days.”
Nowadays, it doesn’t work in a similar manner. Clubs will definitely want to seek help from certain clubs to send players on loan to develop and more importantly to get work permits for non-EU players due to the GBE regulations. But Filip had a different opinion to this, “ I believe they should look at it for sure. Because clubs like Manchester City have a network of clubs to mold their players into first-team material (keep or sell system). Looking from FIFA and UEFA’s perspective, I don’t know how they will be allowed to do that since it’s a bit unfair to the small clubs in smaller leagues.”
Looking at the other loan deals that happened last year, it seems that the club has made some informal relationships through previous staff who worked at the club at both technical and board-room levels.
Certainly, there is a connection between NK Istra and Manchester United as per Filip’s observation. Istra is owned by Baskonia-Alaves Group which also owns Deportivo Alaves in Spain, where Facundo Pellistri, United’s No.28 went on loan. “ Actually Antoni Lima, an ex-scout of Manchester United has a significant role in the organizing committee at Alaves. About 5 to 6 players went on loan from Alaves to Istra last season and were Levitt’s teammates. I would not like to speculate but logically there is a possibility of some similar loan deals happening in the future because of the connection with Lima. It’s an interesting one which we should definitely wait for.”
Lastly, the feedback was quite positive from sources within both clubs as well as the player. And Filip concluded it well by saying the following, “Levitt got what he wanted in terms of his end goals for the season. He will never forget such an experience. In the end, even Istra was very happy as they were led to safety from relegation. So there was immense satisfaction on all these fronts.”
Hopefully, the club takes note of his progress at Dundee United and make a decision to integrate him soon. A bold and open-minded player like Levitt would definitely help lift both United and Wales in the future.
Note: We did this work to help every United fan understand the difficulties and hardships faced by a young player moving to another country on loan in search of minutes on the pitch. Players are ignorantly abused or disregarded these days by an array of fans on social media for not reaching up to the expectation of the fans when playing at a top Premier League club after facing challenges to integrate them into the first team from the academy. Hope this piece has helped us to set a value for their struggle and feel free to give us your feedback.