Diogo Dalot: 21/22 Tactical Analysis & role prediction under Erik ten Hag 

One year ago, if a Manchester United fan would have said that Diogo Dalot would be pushing for a starter spot at the club and be a candidate to build around for the new manager, no one would have believed that person. One needs to just think back on Dalot warming the bench for AC Milan, only getting starts in the Europa league, that too often from a left-wing back position to mitigate his poor defending.

Even in those few Europa games, from a left-sided wingback role, Dalot was often troubled by wingers from small European clubs. Such displays coupled with then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lack of trust in Dalot was making Manchester United fans assume that an acceptance of another failed wonderkid project and a sale to recoup the £19m fee paid for the Portuguese right-back in 2018, were just around the corner.

But such is the unpredictability in football that less than a year later, Dalot has comfortably jumped ahead of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in United’s pecking order, and has the blessing of Ralf Rangnick and United fans all over the world, to continue his growth trend and push for a starter spot under imminent new manager Erik Ten Hag.

Today, we analyse the numbers behind the rise of Dalot in 2021/22, how he has managed to out-perform Wan-Bissaka and also how he could fit into Erik Ten Hag’s system, using some data-driven visualizations.

Dalot vs Wan-Bissaka

Let’s kick things off with the main reason Dalot is starting for United – because he’s been better than Aaron Wan-Bissaka. We look at the 21/22 pizza percentile charts of both players to understand the differences this season.

Among the 16 stats shown in the pizza charts, seven are related to possession, six to passing and three to defending. Each stat’s percentile value denotes the player’s strength in that stat compared to all fullbacks in their league. Eg. a 99 percentile on ‘key passes’ for a player means he’s the leader in the league for Key Passes on a per 90 basis while a 1 percentile would mean they are the league’s lowest for that stat.

What is immediately noticeable is Dalot’s superior passing. He comfortably beats Wan-Bissaka in all passing metrics especially impressing for Progresive Passes, Passes into final third and Passes into penalty area, where he’s up there with some of the league’s best fullbacks.

Interim manager Ralf’s Rangnick’s tactics usually involve progression from the fullbacks so that they can offer width and progression, while the attackers can remain compact and narrow to make the game vertical in possession and enable a consistent high press out of possession. While many of Rangnick’s principles have unfortunately not seen their best version this season, his demands of progression from the fullbacks have been answered strongly by Dalot and this remains one of the major reasons he gets picked ahead of Wan-Bissaka.

When it comes to carrying, Wan-Bissaka is actually good, boasting high Carries, Dribbles and Dribble success, but once again when it comes to actually moving the game forward, Dalot is superior, beating Wan-Bissaka on Carries into the final third, Progressive carries and Carries into the penalty area.

This has been another criticism of Wan-Bissaka for a few years now. While his passing technique may be limiting him from progressing and creating via passes, Wan-Bissaka’s carrying and dribbling have been good enough for him to deliver more attacking and progression output from it, but the Englishman has just not shown enough ambition, positivity and desire to get forward into dangerous areas and make himself an attacking threat. Being unable to progress neither via passing nor carrying is probably the biggest reason Wan-Bissaka finds his England and United career suffering.

Let’s get into a deeper comparison on how both fullbacks actually progress via passing to learn where the difference is coming from.

The heat maps above signify start locations of successful progressive passes. There are two major takeaways here. The first is that Dalot has a more varied map showcasing his range of passing. He often drifts towards the centre of the pitch and is able to progress inwards, giving him more opportunities to find midfield and attacking players. In comparison, Wan-Bissaka sticks to the wide areas, like a touchline fullback rarely helping in build up or progression.

The second takeaway is that while Dalot’s success percentage of progressive passes is slightly higher than Wan-Bissaka, it’s his attempts that are more than double. This adds to the insight we spoke about earlier about Wan-Bissaka not being brave enough. He doesn’t try enough risky passes that can progress the game which hints at a mentality or habit issue. Dalot not only has the technique to consistently progress but also the ambition and desire to do so consistently.

The heat map also shows two large patches for Dalot. These can be roughly divided as Dalot’s attempts to progress from the defensive third to the middle third and his attempts to progress from the middle third to attacking third. Let’s split these 2 types of progression for a better understanding. 

As you can see Dalot’s deep progressive passes are a lot more safer often attempting to pick the man on the wing or the midfielder close to him. While there are a few switch passes to the opposite side, he largely tries to get out of his third with a neat and smart progressive pass to help the team build up and get into midfield without losing the ball.

In the middle third, his variety and ambition increases as he tries to find attackers. His attempts include some longer passes and he drifts more towards the centre of the pitch to play almost like a midfielder at times. This inversion, especially during the attacking phase, is something we had noted in his heat map as well and is clear in his progressive passes higher up the pitch as well. I will highlight this again later in our last section.

Dalot’s ranking among Manchester United players in 21/22: Progressive Passes: 3rd, Progressive Pass Distance: 1st, Passes into penalty area: 4th, Switches of play: 3rd, Crosses: 2nd

Overall, Dalot’s technique and ambition to offer progression of various types whether it’s from deep or in the opponent’s half, makes him a superior fullback to Wan-Bissaka and the main reason why he’s seen more starts than the Englishman.

Dalot’s movement and defending

Keeping Dalot’s progression aside, as mentioned earlier, one reason he often got criticism during his loan spells and his time under Solskjaer was his defending and positioning. Dalot’s movement was often all over the place and his ability to win the ball was always in doubt. This has been one area he has worked on and improved. It would be wrong to say that he’s defensively solid but he’s come a long way from being leaky to someone reliable enough to start for a top team now. 

We look at a map of all his successful defensive actions and a heat map of all his actions combined. The defensive map shows the effort Dalot has put on his wing especially when it comes to ball recoveries and tackles.

Dalot’s ranking among Manchester United players in 21/22: Tackles: 2nd, Tackles won: 2nd, Dribblers tackled: 1st, Interceptions: 5th, Aerial Win %: 3rd

These are quite decent numbers for a fullback and show how Dalot has matured from a player who often used to hesitate to do the dirty work to one who is willing to get stuck in for the team. His tackles, dribblers tackled and aerial win % indicate a player who is really willing to get into duels to win the ball back.

The area of improvement remains his positioning. While it has gotten better from the poor standards of previous seasons, Dalot still gets caught out now and then. His interceptions stat shows a slight lack of defensive awareness that can improve further.

The all actions heat map confirms something we have discussed a few times now. While Dalot looks to dominate his wing, he also provides some central presence both on the ball and off it, inverting to become an option in the middle of the pitch.

Fitment into Erik ten Hag’s tactics

The rumours of Ten Hag having agreed a deal with Manchester United are getting stronger every day with the latest information citing an official announcement planned once Ajax are done playing for remaining honours of their season.

There is no getting around the fact that Ten Hag will need a rebuild of sorts if he takes over. This season has already shown that United need one badly and Erik’s tactical needs will also dictate many of the ins and outs, but if there is one player who will be hoping to keep his spot and work his way into the starting XI under Ten Hag next season, it will be Diogo Dalot.

First, let’s understand what Ten Hag’s system looks like in a brief manner. He often sets up his teams in a 4-3-3. He likes all 4 members of the back 4 to be good progressors. This effect is further amplified by a DM who’s major role involves shielding the defence and covering for them as they progress.

As a result, Ten Hag’s centre-backs love to step forward into midfield, while his fullbacks often invert and operate in central areas. The ones who provide width for the team are often the inverted wingers, who operate high and wide and excel in isolations to cut in and create or score. The 2 midfielders ahead of the DM link play like 2 engines with one taking up a more box-to-box role and the other a more AM style role, both together offering support to the CF, who is adept at back-to-goal play and a good passer himself.

The two Sofascore maps above show the average positions of Ajax’s players in two league games last month. The principles discussed above – of a shielding DM close to the center-backs, fullbacks at the halfway line to offer options for progression, wingers providing width and central midfielders sticking close to the striker to provide attacking options – are all clearly visible.

Noussair Mazraoui is the regular right back for Ajax and in both screenshots he is denoted by the no. 12. As you can see, he doesn’t really go high and wide, the way you would expect the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold or Reece James to. He often inverts to provide progression and find the central midfielder.

The progression that fullbacks like him and Blind (usually left-back for Ten Hag this season) are able to offer is the reason the wingers can stay high and wide and the central midfielders can take up advanced positions closer to the front 3. Both fullbacks can either go down the wing or towards the middle with the angles they create with their passing. They are required to be adept progressive passers but aren’t required to be wide attacking creative wingbacks in this system.

And all this fits very well with Dalot’s skillset. As we’ve seen in the analysis above, Dalot’s progression, ability to find wide players down the flanks and midfielders in central areas, ability to invert and provide midfield presence and hesitancy to bomb down the flank to cross or create, all fit perfectly with the requirements of a Ten Hag right-back.

If someone like Jurgen Klopp had taken over United (for argument’s sake) he might have wanted a wide attacking creative outlet in his fullback, rendering Dalot unsuitable or at best, a backup. But the matching of Dalot’s skillset and Ten Hag’s needs means that this is one area Ten Hag might not need to invest heavily in which can allow him the budget and energy to focus on more problematic areas in the team like DM, CF and RW. 

In summary, Dalot’s wonderful renaissance over the past year into a progressive inverted fullback has the potential to become a story of even greater rise if Erik Ten Hag is appointed as Manchester United manager and sees Dalot for what he has become. In all senses, this could be a match made in heaven. Don’t be surprised if Dalot stakes his claim to become one of the key starters under Erik Ten Hag in 22/23 and beyond. He has earned the right by merit.

(All stats from fbref.com
+ Formation maps from Sofascore app)

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