Diogo Dalot has been one of the standout players for Manchester United this season, despite not beginning it as a starter.
But in the last couple of years, he has very much established himself at Manchester United and his game goes from strength to strength every year. At this point last season, he had been one of Erik ten Hag‘s very best players and the same is true for this season, albeit in different circumstances.
The main criticism of him remains long-term consistency, and he has picked up multiple injuries during his tenure at the club so far. The two are not unrelated as these injuries impacted the Portuguese full-back’s momentum when he is building play, and the resurgence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the back half of last season made minutes harder to come by.
This season, the Englishman started the season at right back. Injury to Luke Shaw brought Dalot into the fray at left-back, where he excelled, but Wan-Bissaka too found himself injured soon and Dalot was moved back to his preferred side. He has continued the excellent form since, barring an error or two.
As a player, his game has cyclically evolved. When signed, he was a flying attacking full-back who would bomb up and down the wing but was weak defensively. Over the years, he developed his game as a full-back, becoming more than comfortable inverting into central areas and improving his positional sense, as well as his one-against-one defensive qualities.
One criticism of Dalot last season was that he did not overlap and support his winger enough. Whilst an exaggerated narrative, Dalot often overlapped Antony but ended up being ignored in favour of a low-quality shot – he was sometimes seen sitting back in cases where you would want him to create a dynamic superiority out wide.
This seemed instructional, in order to secure United’s rest defensive structure and support the centre-backs in the channels, but it limited United’s attack in a lot of cases. This season, however, Dalot has been seen high and wide, overlapping and holding width to allow his winger to come inside – going back to what he offered as a teenager. This has partly been inspired by United’s injury issues on the right wing, but it has seen the player diversify his skillset.
He is still inverting into midfield, and as one of if not United’s best receivers of the ball in central midfield areas it is critical that he does this. He also has his duties out of possession, and whilst the lack of jumping from the full-backs in Ten Hag’s pressing system remains a problem he still has a great deal to do. A lot is being asked of Diogo Dalot right now, but he is taking on the challenge.
United’s two goals in the win over Sheffield United summarised what he is doing in possession right now. The first goal stemmed from him combining with Antony before going off down the right wing and crossing to the left-hand side, from which United worked Mctominay’s goal. In the second, he received the ball centrally around 25 yards from goal before unleashing a rocket strike.
His ball striking is one quality of his that is a real threat. Whilst the weight of his crosses could do with work, whilst much improved he still has a tendency to overhit them sometimes, his ability to generate such power and swerve on his crosses and shots causes teams a lot of issues. The fact he can use his left foot so effectively helps him a lot too, both in terms of the passes he makes and also making him less predictable.
In general, Dalot is a powerful player, consistently ranking as one of United’s top sprinters and dominating most of his duels. He is quick off the mark, agile, and uses his arms effectively to create separation from his marker. In the air, few full-backs outdo him – his leap, timing and reading of ball flight are all excellent.
Technically, well, there is a reason Ten Hag is asking so much of him right now. His ability with the ball is bettered by very few right backs in English football, a top-class passer and ball carrier. He is comfortable playing at all angles, both sides or inside and has a balanced risk profile – being aware of when to accelerate and decelerate play.
There have been times when in possession he may as well be playing as United’s number six, popping up there and not looking out of place at all. His aforementioned receiving quality is a key part of this, there is an argument he is United’s best central receiver with his back to the goal.
It would not be balanced to only speak about his strengths. Weaknesses exist in his game, his one-against-one defending has improved a lot but against particularly potent wingers he can still struggle a lot sometimes. He often dives into his challenges a bit, stabbing at the ball, and if beaten can be left behind, albeit his athletic qualities make it easier for him to recover.
Another issue is the weighting of his crosses, as mentioned before. A fundamentally good ball striker, he hits the ball with good technique and has a nice variety of deliveries in his locker, but can overhit the ball on his stronger right foot. This is improving but still requires quite a bit of work.
Finally, he can find himself getting injured slightly too often. He is not ‘injury-prone’, per se, but at a couple of moments where he has been in particularly hot form, he has found himself picking up an injury which can kill off his momentum for some time. This is not entirely his fault, but it is something that United’s higher-ups should be eyeing closely.
There is one quality of his that has not been spoken about, something that drives his strengths and allows him to overcome his weaknesses: mentality.
Diogo Dalot is Manchester United’s biggest fan on the pitch, he plays with his heart bursting out of his sleeve. Every time United are on the pitch, he and Rasmus Højlund are the two players who stand out the most in terms of the passion they show for the club – you can really see that they want to be there. His celebration after Scott McTominay’s dramatic winner against Brentford was a great example of this.
Dalot cares, a lot. For this reason, he is desperate to improve and do better, and it’s very evident both on and off the field. From the flying full-back with large defensive holes who joined the club in 2018, he has become a remarkably well-rounded player in his position and is now starting to show that attacking promise again.
Right now, the main thing that holds him back from being not only Manchester United’s world-class long-term right back is consistency over the course of a full season. For this reason, United should still monitor the likes of Alexander Bah and Noussair Mazraoui across the course of the season. If they were to become available for reasonable prices in the summer, United signing them would be a good move. Habeeb Ogunneye in the academy should also be monitored.
But whether or not a right back is a priority for next summer should not be decided yet. In around April time, we will see how both Dalot & Wan-Bissaka have done over the course of the season. If neither have been able to lock down the right back spot as their own, United should look to the market if there is no immediately available solution in the academy.
But Dalot has been one of United’s best players this season and deserves the chance to make that spot his own once and for all. On paper, he is a top fit for Ten Hag’s game model, and once Ten Hag commits to this we could see the true best of Dalot – and that is a top-class player.
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