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Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles set pathway for squad players to prove themselves

The once fringe fullbacks have taken their chance at just the right time...

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Following two impressive performances in the Premier League from left back Alex Telles and right back Diogo Dalot within the past six days, the pair could very well be Ralf Rangnick’s preferred fullback duo going forward in his new system for Manchester United.

The fullbacks, who were mainly used as squad players under former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, were given the nod to start against Arsenal in the Premier League by caretaker manager Michael Carrick in his third and final game in charge of the club. The pair impressed in what appeared to be Carrick’s attempt to prepare the team for high-pressing football under incoming interim manager Ralf Rangnick, and they’ve been on a roll ever since.

Telles had previously started two games since Luke Shaw exited United’s league match against Watford with a concussion on Nov. 20, but it took him a while to get back into form in the English international’s absence. Dalot started in lieu of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who sustained an injury against Chelsea on Nov. 28.

According to Statman Dave on Twitter, Dalot made the most ball recoveries (5) and interceptions (2) than any player of the field in the first half. The Portuguese right back finished the game with an impressive 79% pass completion rate, 100% aerial duels won, 60% successful tackles, and two interceptions.

Newly hired Rangnick opted to select Dalot and Telles in his first match for United as he took over for Sunday’s match against Crystal Palace, which allowed the pair to continue building confidence and fight to cement their places in the starting eleven.

Rangnick’s preferred 4-2-2-2 formation requires both fullbacks to get up and down the line and be instrumental in the attack, as well as cutting out passes to opposition wingers in a high press. Dalot and Telles were responsible for progression up the pitch once they received the ball in the defensive third, and they combined with midfielders and forwards and sent crosses into the box as wing backs as they entered the attacking third.

As Palace became compact to prevent any buildup through the midfield and center forwards, space opened on the wings for the pair to play the ball down the line into forwards or attack the empty space themselves. At times, the pair would cut inside and drive at defenders before laying the ball off to a teammate, which Dalot displayed in the buildup to Fred’s decisive wonder strike in the 77th minute.

In the end, their postgame statistics spoke for themselves as the Portuguese-speaking duo built on their form from the Arsenal game. Telles made the most tackles and interceptions (11) than any player in the match, per Statman Dave. Dalot boasted an 88% passing accuracy, nine successful long passes in 11 attempts, six ball recoveries, three successful tackles out of four attempts, two successful crosses, an interception, and a shot.

One criticism from fans of Wan-Bissaka is his ability on the ball going forward. With Dalot looking sharp in attacking positions, the Portuguese international could very well be Rangnick’s preferred choice at right back. The same can be said of Telles as Shaw has been out of form since returning from EURO 2020. Perhaps Dalot’s introduction into the starting lineup could spark Wan-Bissaka to regain his form and starting spot, similar to how Telles’ signing in October 2020 pushed Shaw to fight for his position and produce some of the Englishmen’s best performances in a United shirt.

Nevertheless, Telles and Dalot are prime examples of what could happen when squad players are given a run of games to prove themselves to the manager. A common complaint amongst many United fans is that players such as Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard, and Eric Bailly weren’t given a consecutive run of games—mainly appearing as late substitutes in the Premier League and Champions League or as starters in a fully-rotated team in the Carabao and FA Cups—to earn a starting place under Solskjaer over the past year. Fans specifically highlighted Solskjaer’s treatment of van de Beek towards the end of the Norwegian’s reign at Old Trafford, and many have been singing for the Dutchman to come on during recent matches.

These players will look to follow in Dalot and Telles’ footsteps by catching Rangnick’s attention in Wednesday’s final UEFA Champions League Group Stage match against BSC Young Boys. The German manager confirmed on Tuesday that van de Beek and goalkeeper Dean Henderson will be in the starting lineup, and he said that youngsters Anthony Elanga and Amad Diallo will also receive playing time.

With high levels of intensity and fitness needed for players to execute Rangnick’s signature gegenpress football at United, fans can expect to see frequent squad rotation and increased chances for fringe players to earn a run of games.