Jose Mourinho saw great things in Diogo Dalot but only since Erik ten Hag has that been realised at Man Utd. He is an actual undroppable.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Noussair Mazraoui are a year older. Achraf Hakimi, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Pedro Porro are the same age. Reece James and Tariq Lamptey are a year younger. Yet it was Diogo Dalot who Jose Mourinho once described as “the best full-back in Europe” of his generation.
The 23-year-old has rarely looked as such. There is obvious mitigation in that regard, not least the fact his four years at Old Trafford have been spent playing under three permanent managers and two caretakers in between one loan spell at Milan. It is a level of upheaval which does not seem conducive to a player’s seamless transition or acclimatisation to a new country, league and team.
But with the steady hand of Erik ten Hag giving Man Utd a semblance of seriousness and gravity, Dalot has clearly benefited.
Three outfielders have featured in every game under the Dutchman but while Lisandro Martinez and Bruno Fernandes were both introduced as substitutes in the Europa League defeat to Real Sociedad, Dalot is alone in matching David de Gea as a permanent fixture in the starting line-up.
It is difficult not to be a Man Utd undroppable in 2022 yet few would argue Dalot has not earned the moniker.
Gary Neville – there’s a man who knows a thing or two about right-backs – was palpably infatuated with his latest successor midway through the second half against West Ham. David Moyes – there’s a man who knows a thing or two about an overreliance on crosses at Old Trafford – seemed to direct his side to loft some deliveries towards the back post in the forlorn hope of finding a breakthrough, but Dalot was positioned perfectly each time to head clear. Three testing crosses came in over the course of 10 minutes or so, with each passed thanks to the Portuguese.
By the 82nd minute, when Pablo Fornals searched for Michail Antonio, only for Dalot to interject again with glorious timing, awareness and concentration, it felt as though Dan Burn had been reborn.
Diogo Dalot’s game by numbers vs. West Ham:
5 ball recoveries
4 ground duels won
4/4 long balls completed
4 key passes 🏅
4 tackles won
3 interceptions 🏅
2 crosses completed 🏅
2/2 aerial duels won
1/1 dribble completed
Outstanding in every area of the pitch. 👏 pic.twitter.com/NOMSvD1ht1
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) October 30, 2022
There was a time when Dalot was widely considered to be inferior to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at the very least in a defensive sense. It has always been an attacking no-contest in favour of the former but supporters had long pondered whether they could merge the two flawed, underwhelming full-backs in the hope of creating a competent one.
All it required was the clear vision for and focused coaching of an undeniably talented player. Mourinho said in 2018 that Dalot “has all the attributes that a full-back needs: physicality, tactical intelligence and technical quality”. Not until Ten Hag had anyone managed to coax them out.
Dalot fits neatly into the age of the modern full-back who does not actually play all that often at full-back. With him inverting and taking up more central positions, Man Utd hold their shape and progress the ball far better. It can lend itself to gaps opening up behind on the right but Dalot’s dynamism and the cooperation the centre-half next to him makes the risk entirely worth it.
“We’re the first players who start to build up from the back,” Dalot told The Times this weekend of the full-back role. “When you’re pressing, you want to press when the ball goes to the full-backs. The full-back is often the one who changes the team’s shape with their positioning. When switching play, the full-backs are one of the first players you try to look for. So, more or less everything ends on full-backs these days.
“And now, you are seeing that full-backs are able to play different positions, playing a little bit more on the midfield, doing almost like double sixes, and playing as No 8s, No 10s. I like it because it makes me try to be complete.
“And I really like this manager. He asks me to do different things, different types of roles in different games and I just try to adapt as much as I can.”
The feeling is mutual: Ten Hag clearly likes and relies on Dalot. And while the rush from some quarters of the Man Utd fanbase to declare him the world’s best right-back so far this season feels nebulous, he is putting some of his higher profile contemporaries to shame.