In a recent interview, the 23-year-old made a confident proposition regarding himself and his teammates, saying, “We have a chance to be remembered as the players that brought Manchester United back.” Given Dalot’s recent form, he can certainly stake a claim of being one of the primary contributors to such a colossal task.
Promise, Injuries and a Trip to Milan
Diogo Dalot was brought to United in the summer of 2018 by compatriot Jose Mourinho. The signing certainly ruffled feathers among Man United supporters – a player who had made merely 6 senior appearances for Porto came to Manchester with a £19 million fee attached, not to mention the natural pressures which come with being earmarked and selected by one of football’s most successful and respected coaches.
Initially, Dalot spent two seasons at United, but his efforts of solidifying a permanent spot at right-back were harrowed by a number of injuries. He struggled for form, and though Dalot’s name became more frequent on the team sheet following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s interim appointment, the signing of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in June 2019 meant that chances for the Portuguese international became thoroughly limited.
Following these two seasons, Dalot was loaned to Italian giants AC Milan for the 2020/21 season. He played regularly, making 33 appearances as both a right-back and a left-back. Dalot himself believes that his time in Italy allowed him to improve his defensive ability, while still maintaining his ability to attack. Upon his return to United, he decided against signing for another club, those interested included Milan themselves and Borussia Dortmund, and instead opted to compete with Wan-Bissaka for a starting position. Following the appointment of interim boss Ralf Rangnick in December 2021, Dalot featured much more regularly, and was one of the more consistent performers as United’s season came to a disastrous close.
A Rise in Form
Under Erik ten Hag, Dalot has produced resurgent form to put to rest any questions of his place being under threat by Wan-Bissaka, who in contrast has seen his game-time heavily reduced and a summer exit looking likely. Dalot has evolved his game to become much more solid defensively whilst also providing a useful attacking outlet to aid the attacking prowess of his respective winger, whether it be Jadon Sancho or Antony. From as far back as early pre-season games, it could be seen that Dalot would have a crucial role in Ten Hag’s first period as United manager. Often criticised for being too passive last season, his improved alertness and ability to overlap and underlap Jadon Sancho has proved to be a key part to this new United system.
While it’s clear to see that Dalot has improved in performance visually, the statistics also compound this. In his first six Premier League games of the season, Dalot made 14 tackles, more than any other player in the team at that stage. Though he picked up three yellow cards in the process, he has shown an aggressiveness which has been lacking in this United team for several years. Additionally, Dalot’s cross accuracy has risen by 19% from last season. It’s also fair to say that, barring a disastrous overturn in form, he will easily achieve higher than last year’s meagre total of just five league clean sheets.
Comparing Dalot to his United predecessors who have played in the same position, he offers a very different playing style to the likes of Rafael or Gary Neville who have come before him. Perhaps he can be most likened to Antonio Valencia, who as a winger converted to a full-back, showed similar attributes of well-timed standing tackles, in addition to breaking into sudden darting sprints along the right wing, keen to catalyse a scoring opportunity.
The Portuguese seems to have formed a positive relationship with summer signing Lisandro Martinez, whom himself has played a massive role in United’s good spell of form. Both players have often relished in celebrating with one another in the event either of them makes a good defensive challenge – this behaviour has been very much welcomed by United fans, and echoes back to behaviour similar to that of Italian sentinels Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. The emergence of a siege mentality such as this gives confidence in the belief that Dalot along with his fellow defenders are willing to go to the wire in their efforts to present a formidable opposition to any attacking force that they face. In the modern game especially, the role of full-backs cannot be understated. Dalot’s recent rejuvenation under Ten Hag will no doubt play an important role in the midst of a hectic schedule, along with Ten Hag’s own plans of guiding United back to a position of real contention at both league and European levels.
Dalot brought with him much promise when he joined United four years ago - he is now certainly living up to that promise.