Reports emerging in the media today suggest that Manchester United are poised to make a €30 million move to sign Brazilian right-back Fabinho from AS Monaco. It is thought that, although new manager José Mourinho has already secured his four primary transfer targets this summer, he remains keen to further bolster his defensive options.
And Fabinho is seen as the man to add a degree of dynamism and power to the right side of the United defence.
But do the Red Devils really need a new right-back? After all, just a year ago a confident young full-back with a burgeoning reputation was signed for £14 million, should he now be considered surplus to requirements?
In July 2015, United moved quickly and efficiently to tie up a deal to bring Italian international defender Matteo Darmian to Old Trafford. In the previous season, the former AC Milan youth product had earned the reputation of being one of the finest players in Europe in his position, thanks to his consistency, reliability and composure for Torino in Serie A.
And the deal represented somewhat of a coup for United as, in addition to a string of Serie A’s elite clubs, Darmian was also wanted at Bayern Munich by then-manager Pep Guardiola. But he didn’t join Napoli, he didn’t join Juventus or Bayern, he signed for Manchester United.
Darmian arrived in Manchester with the authoritative stamp of quality that comes from being an Azzurri — the Italian national team — defender.
His early performances in the red shirt showed great promise; tenacious in the tackle, positionally responsible and with seemingly boundless energy reserves, Darmian looked the real deal. Nobody wanted to get ahead of themselves in their assessment of the Italian’s qualities, but it appeared as though, with Luke Shaw on the opposite side of the back line, United had their full-back positions sewn up for years to come.
But as the season wore on, United’s performances failed to inspire, and Darmian struggled to find the level of consistency he had shown throughout his four years in Turin.
As was his wont, manager Louis van Gaal would switch Darmian between the right- and left-back positions after Shaw’s unfortunate injury. The 26-cap Italy international’s performances slipped below the level required: he was uncharacteristically caught out of position too often, his passing became a little erratic and, most frustratingly to the fans inside Old Trafford, his crosses regularly failed to bypass the first defender.
But Darmian’s drop-off in form was in keeping with the United team as a whole. A team that had had around £250 million pound spent on it in the previous two years, showed no signs of threatening the title contenders, and failed to even attain the minimum requirement of Champions League qualification.
Darmian was by no means a disaster when played, and there were many players who frustrated more than he did. But still, the promise of those early perfomances was not delivered on.
So now, with van Gaal gone and Mourinho brought in, United, to all intents and purposes, seem to be set back on the path towards the upper echelons of the Premier League. Again, money has been spent on strengthening the squad, and hope has been restored among fans that the dark days of the post-Ferguson era are coming to an end.
This period of transition has seen Darmian fall out of favour; failing to make even the substitutes’ bench for the season opener against Bournemouth last weekend, the 26-year-old appears not to figure in Mourinho’s plans.
And, more tellingly, the Portuguese coach has selected Antonio Valencia, a winger by trade, to start in the right-back position.
With the transfer deadline drawing closer, media reports lead us to believe that Darmian’s future may lie away from Old Trafford, with Napoli keen on taking him back to Serie A, while United press on in their attempt to sign Fabinho; barely a thought has been given to the man who was seen as the solution to the right-back issue this time last year.
But consideration should be given to Darmian, whose quality and pedigree has not dissipated in 12 months as a United player. Rather, he is a player whose confidence has been eroded by the mismanagement of van Gaal -- and he’s not the only one.
Under the auspices of a coach who places such emphasis on systemic rigidity as Mourinho, a defender of Darmian’s ability could, and should, flourish.
Given time, patience, and a little bit of belief, Darmian could yet be restored to the marauding, tenacious defender who so impressed in the early part of last season; he could be the new right-back Mourinho craves.