Diogo Dalot is INCREDIBLY Improved Under Erik Ten Hag ‍2023/24. Watch the video of his performance this season of Man United now

How ‘grafter’ Diogo Dalot is starting to deliver as Manchester United’s top right-back

Diogo Dalot is beginning to make the leap.

The right-back has been a head-scratcher of a player for much of his Manchester United career, “good enough” in all of the traits for a modern full-back but without any outstanding skills. The 24-year-old was prone to patchy form; he appeared to be a mainstay in Erik ten Hag’s best XI in the pre-World Cup section of 2022-23 before suffering an injury and dip in level that saw Aaron Wan-Bissaka play himself back into contention. Each man has strengths and weaknesses, but neither Dalot nor Wan-Bissaka has convinced the United manager they should be the starting right-back over the other. Until now.

Dalot’s recent form suggests he should be Ten Hag’s right-back for the remainder of the season. A smart recovery run and block against West Ham illustrated his improved defensive awareness and intensity. His first-time cross for Scott McTominay’s header was crucial in the win over Aston Villa.

“He’s a very mature player for his age,” says one source at Carrington, speaking to The Athletic on condition of anonymity to maintain relationships.

“It’s easy to forget how relatively young he still is. He’s very professional and very switched on tactically. He’s played inside as the extra midfielder really well at times this year.”

Dalot has improved his attempts to ‘invert’ from right-back since a chaotic Champions League game against Villarreal in 2021. Under Ten Hag’s tutelage, he has grown into a considered passing option and is quietly one of the club’s better performers. According to fbref.com, only Bruno Fernandes (with a remarkable 206) has made more ‘progressive passes’ (completed passes that move the ball at least 10 yards closer to the opponent’s goal or into the penalty area) for United this season than Dalot (82), who also sits third for most ‘progressive carries’ (which also move the ball at least 10 yards closer to the opponent’s goal or into the penalty area) with 39 successful efforts (behind Marcus Rashford’s 76 and Alejandro Garnacho’s 105).

Diogo Dalot Manchester United right-back

He’s also deceptively fast. Statistics taken from Opta recorded the right-back as having the fastest top speed of all United players in a Premier League game this season (35.6km/h; or 22.1 mph). Dalot is channelling that pace to make recovery runs to help Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane when the team is vulnerable to a counter-attack.

When Dalot attacks in the final third, it’s often through underlapping runs, tucking inside into the right half-space to deliver crosses into the penalty area. Dalot’s deliveries can be a mixed bag; he is capable of wonderful crosses — as seen against Villa — but he has been prone to mishits and ill-directed attempts. He’s trying to iron out these inconsistencies at Carrington with sessions on his crossing and also his long-range shooting. His work rate has seen him described as a “grafter” by those at the training ground and his eagerness to work on weaknesses is an infectious good habit.

A lifelong fan of Porto, Dalot gets on well with forwards coach Benni McCarthy, who won the Champions League with Porto, and exchanges jibes with Bruno Fernandes about his time at Sporting Lisbon. The United captain is one of Dalot’s closest friends in the squad, along with Antony, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro.

A loan spell to AC Milan in 2020-21 saw Dalot learn the finer points of communication and defensive positioning from then-technical director Paolo Maldini. He learned Italian to speak with team-mates, adding a fourth language to his English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“He’s developed into a strong, multi-faceted asset,” says our source. “He’s sociable and connects with everyone in the squad. His English is excellent to connect with the English lads, but he connects really well with the Portuguese and Spanish speakers.”

He’s undergone a physical transformation since his time in Serie A, adding more muscle mass to his 1.83m (6ft) frame to compete with the strongest attackers in the Premier League. He is a keen user of Wyscout video analysis — much like Casemiro — and is known to go over his previous performances, looking to refine his play.

“Cristiano Ronaldo had a big impact on him,” explains our source. “Diogo was in awe of Cristiano, but in a good way of how to be a top footballer and they’re now friends.”

Dalot and Ronaldo are still in communication following the forward’s move to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia. They will hope to play a key role for Portugal at Euro 2024 this summer. Rio Ferdinand recently revealed he had enquired about the right-back’s talent, only for Ronaldo to inform him: “He works. He’ll work harder. He’ll make himself better, 100 per cent. He’ll improve.”

Dalot’s improved work rate can be seen from his passing in 2023-24 compared to last season. He is receiving the ball in slightly more advanced positions and working harder to find United’s best players in the final third.

There have been bumps along the road this season, such as when Wilfried Zaha exploited his defensive weaknesses in the Champions League for Galatasaray.

“He’s been inconsistent with certain things: some of his defending at the back post, some of his positioning,” says our source. “But it’s all slowly improving and getting better. He’s had a really good run of games this season and he has to be in the conversation for the club’s player of the year given his number of appearances and level of performance.”

United need him to continue this good form, too, especially as Wan-Bissaka has injured his leg. Before the 2022-23 season, The Athletic highlighted right-backs who could be better suited to Ten Hag’s style of football than the fluid skill set of Dalot or the defensive specialisation of Wan-Bissaka. A season and a half later, the club is satisfied with their options as Dalot continues to make good headway in his development and Wan-Bissaka is well-rated around Carrington. Both right-backs are well-versed in the demands of Premier League football and there is a belief it could be difficult to find another right-back with the mental and tactical fortitude to be a United player this season.

The right-back position is Dalot’s to lose and Ten Hag values his ability to play on the left and offer further tactical options. If Dalot can add more elements to his game – in particular how he attacks when overlapping his winger – then he might yet become an ideal right-back for his manager. A five-year contract signed last season, with the option of an additional year, could see Dalot stay at the club for the majority of his career. It’s been a quick turnaround for a player who was linked to Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid during Ralf Rangnick’s turbulent interim managerial stint.

Dalot has settled into life in Manchester and became a father in November. He’s a popular presence on the club’s in-house media productions and he runs a padel centre in Portugal (but does not play the sport during the football season).

Dalot is beginning to make the leap. United will hope he sticks the landing.

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