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Waiting for Dalot

Don’t give up on this Portuguese hotshot yet

Derby County v Manchester United -FA Cup Photo by Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Manchester United might enjoy an embarrassment of academy riches nowadays, but it wasn’t too long ago that that cupboard sat bare. This lack of homegrown first teamers forced the club to hit the transfer market and pay up for other teams’ advanced prospects. And, his anti-kid rep notwithstanding, José Mourinho did just that with Diogo Dalot in 2018.

Two years later, Dalot’s situation is muddled. Aaron Wan-Bissaka stands ahead of him at right-back, the manager who brought him to Manchester is long gone, and rumors peg Dalot himself for the exit door. But cutting bait with the 21-year-old would be a mistake for a Manchester United team still in transition. Here are a few reasons why:

Dalot’s Sterling Pedigree

When Manchester United signed Dalot from Porto in June 2018, the 19-year-old right-back ranked among the top youngsters in Europe. The Reds stole a march on other clubs across the continent that summer, triggering Dalot’s £17.4 million release clause (and reportedly even paying a bit more) to bring him to Old Trafford on a five-year contract.

Dalot had been tabbed for stardom for some time — first suiting up for the Portugal U15s in 2014 and then leading his homeland to European Championship glory with the U17s two years later. Despite playing in defense, Dalot scored in both the semifinal and final of the U17 Euros.

At club level, he broke into the Porto first team in the second half of the 2017/18 season. After a February debut against Rio Ave, Dalot started four consecutive matches later in the season — even nabbing two assists in his first start. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, though, his breakout season (and brief Porto career) ended with a knee injury.

Dalot’s Determination to Overcome Injuries

Dalot arrived in Manchester crocked, and not a lot has changed since. Missing out on his first preseason with that same lingering knee injury picked up in Porto undoubtedly set him back, delaying his United debut until late September. More on the rest of his 2018/19 season a little later.

This current season, unfortunately, has been trouble from the start. Dalot missed more than a month with a hip injury and then sat out another three months with a bad groin. Upon returning in the new year, he played in a total of four Premier League matches. Even with some cup appearances thrown in, minutes have been few and far between for the young right-back.

Besieged by injuries and with his prospects of unseating Aaron Wan-Bissaka looking grim, Dalot could be forgiven for seeking a fresh start elsewhere. But all indications are that the 21-year-old intends to stand his ground and fight for a bigger first team role. In March, Dalot spoke to the UTD Podcast about that very subject...

When you’re not playing regularly, when things are difficult, the easiest way is to run away from them. But, for me, I don’t like that. It’s been a really tough challenge for me, but I’m willing to fight for it because I think that I can play here for many years. I just need that chance.

Some people might think that it’s been terrifying for me or terrible for my career, but it’s been fantastic in terms of knowledge, in terms of growing up, in terms of playing well. I don’t regret any of the decisions that I made to come here. I’m very proud to be a Man United player and I just want to make part of the history of the club, as well. I think I have everything to do that, but I just need the opportunity and the time for that.

Dalot’s Impressive 2018/19 Season

It’s fair enough to question whether Dalot can stay healthy long-term, but he’s mostly looked the part when on the pitch. Despite the injury-plagued start to his debut season, Dalot ultimately logged more than 1,500 minutes in all competitions in 2018/19.

Here’s a few of the highlights:

  • Dalot ranked second in the Premier League in % of aerial duels won (71.43%)
  • Dalot covered the most ground per 90 minutes of any Manchester United fullback (10.47 km)
  • Dalot created the most big chances per game of any Manchester United player with over 1,000 minutes (0.44)
  • Dalot recorded the second-best cross accuracy in the Premier League (28%)

For whatever reason — probably owing to the club as a whole crashing and burning near the end of the season — these promising performances mostly flew under the radar. AWB was signed for big money and Dalot went back to the fringes of the first team.

No matter what happens in the future, though, Dalot will always have Paris. It was his speculative effort that caromed off Presnel Kimpembe’s arm and earned Manchester United that famous last-minute penalty kick.

Dalot on his heroics:

When you dream about being successful in football and you want to win things, those moments are when you really feel like that. The shot was going into the stands, though!

Dalot’s Positional Fit

There’s still a clear need for Dalot’s skillset in this Manchester United team. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, for all of his prodigious defensive gifts, still lacks an attacking element to his game. Dalot, on the other hand, excels at getting forward. He provides a dash of creativity from out wide, including the ability to blow past defenders from a standing start. As such, Dalot has been tried out on the right wing to decent results.

That’s not the end of his versatility, either. In his brief time with the senior Porto squad, Dalot played exclusively at left-back.

His best bet, though, might come as a right wing-back if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to experiment with a three-man backline. In that scenario, AWB would shift inside to center back and Dalot could use his attacking skills on the wing. That would maximize both players’ talents.

Unfortunately, Dalot’s immediate prospects at Manchester United don’t look great. Any path to a starting role seems blocked — and other clubs have taken notice. Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Tottenham Hotspur are just some of the European elite reported to be considering a summer bid for the 21-year-old. You can't really blame United if they decide to cash in on Dalot — especially if the bidding goes past £30 million — but the smart move would be to persevere with an obviously talented young player and try to find a way to fit this attacking spark into the lineup.