With questions and concerns growing at one end of the pitch over Wayne Rooney, the form of Matteo Darmian must relieve Manchester United fans. All praise Mr. Dependable…
“A profile of a full-back is that first he has to defend and then secondly that he has to build up. Thirdly, he has to attack and give an option to his fellow players in front of him. A player like Juan Mata, who is playing there, needs that fellow player. The full-back has to give him options so that Mata then also has more options. That is the profile of a full back of Manchester United.”
When questioned over the progress of Matteo Darmian, the above was Louis van Gaal’s response. The message was simple: Defend first and foremost, but help in attack when necessary.
It’s very much the modus operandi of the unheralded Italian. Hidden amongst the lauded summer signings of Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, Darmian has been the Mr. Dependable of the new arrivals.
It was the same old story against Swansea. Even in defeat, Darmian was consistent and reliable, and perhaps United’s best performer. In truth, he’s been Van Gaal’s best signing of a summer which the Dutchman has left half-completed.
One wonders whether Darmian shared the disappointment of the majority upon hearing the news of Jefferson Montero’s injury absence. The battle between two of the season’s best performers so far this season was eagerly anticipated. Instead, it was Wayne Routledge providing an underwhelming support act.
Of course, it was only underwhelming due to the sheer one-sided nature of the ‘battle’. Pitted against Darmian, Routledge had just 17 first-half touches; only Glyfi Sigurdsson’s 13 represented fewer. The Englishman added just five more in the second half before his removal on the hour mark.
Darmian’s infallibility was duly noted by opposition manager Garry Monk. The second half saw Swansea focus just 20.8% of attacks down United’s right-hand side, with Luke Shaw doing his best to keep Andre Ayew and company at bay under 54.4% worth of pressure on the opposite flank. Both of Swansea’s goals came from attacks down the left, of course.
But Darmian’s overall affect on his side was all the more notable when he undertook the second of Van Gaal’s three objectives for the profile of a full-back: ‘Secondly, he has to build up.” Bursting out from his confines, Darmian capitalised on a misplaced Swansea pass to initiate a break from defence. He quickly laid the ball off to Wayne Rooney, whose touch epitomised yet another insipid performance from the lone striker. Ashley Williams dispossessed the England man, and all of a sudden, United’s comfort blanket had been removed.
Within a minute, their lead had evaporated. With Darmian out of position, Shaw had pushed forward out of sheer naivety. Sigurdsson was granted the necessary space to cross for Ayew, whose header evaded Romero as easily as the Ghanaian had evaded escaped the gaze of Chris Smalling. Within one minute of Darmian being removed from United’s back line, they had conceded their first goal of this Premier League season.
It was the beginning of the end for United. Five minutes later, Ayew’s sumptuous pass had found Gomis, who applied a scrappy finish. With Shaw and Blind both out of position, and Smalling across to cover them both, Darmian did all he could to quell the Frenchman. Had Sergio Romero not inexplicably jumped over the ball, he would have achieved as such.
It mirrored Liverpool’s collapse at West Ham in some ways. A defence which had kept three opening clean sheets, albeit with players out of position (Joe Gomez/Daley Blind) and doubts persisting over their long-term suitability. Faced with a competent attack, United’s air of invincibility slipped.
Blind in particular was worryingly poor. A midfielder turned left-back forced into central defence, his 5ft 11 frame formed a delightful prospect for Gomis. As such, Smalling was forced to cover the Dutchman at numerous intervals, leaving Shaw isolated on the left. Improved the 20-year-old may be, but Shaw has plenty of learning still to do.
As a result, Darmian provided the sole bastion of reliability at the back. One particular instance saw the Italian rescue an uncharacteristically poor Blind pass at the start of the second half, Darmian cleverly preventing Routledge from capitalising. The 25-year-old from Torino reaffirmed his place as the experienced head among a World Cup bronze medalist and a central defensive pairing with six league titles among them.
That Blind is now viewed as a first-choice defender for a Champions League club boggles the mind, but through little fault of the 25-year-old himself. Then again, that Marouane Fellaini is United’s second-choice striker does the same, particularly with Gomis and Ayew, both free signings and both excellent, on the opposing side.
A word for Swansea, who were brilliant. Garry Monk’s work with the side over the last season has been phenomenal, and in a season where the Premier League’s ‘rest’ are threatening the elite, the Welsh side are very much at the front of that queue.
When praised upon the value of Darmian’s £12.7million price, his manager responded: “Yes, I am very happy that you discovered this because I didn’t read that when the deal was announced. He was not a big player in Italy, he was a rising star.” Depay, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger may have cost over £63million between them, but Darmian has undeniably been the club’s most important signing. Without him, it simply would not have been a four-game wait for United to concede their first goal this season.