Skipping Dubai and new fitness regime – How Diogo Dalot turned his Manchester United career around – Samuel Luckhurst

Diogo Dalot is not among the Manchester United players and staff to have tested positive for Covid-19 and must particularly lament the postponement of the game at Brentford. It was due to be his fourth successive Premier League start. Dalot’s joint-longest league run in the United XI is three games.

The last of those prior to his current stint was in April 2019 and came to a shuddering halt at Everton on Easter Sunday. Humiliated 4-0 at Goodison Park, most of the United players turned towards the tunnel at the full-time shrill. Dalot and Scott McTominay approached a numb away end.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, stood adjacent to Dalot, would only start the Portuguese in two more league games across two-and-a-half years, although Dalot spent eight months in Italy on loan with AC Milan. Dalot’s start against Arsenal two weeks ago marked his first in the Premier League since October 2019.

All Dalot needed was a chance. Few players have benefited more from the managerial change at United than Dalot. Gradually, he has underpinned United’s front-footed approach and his proactive play has been welcomed in contrast to the reticent Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Ralf Rangnick praised him in his assessment of the 1-0 wins over Crystal Palace and Norwich.

Rangnick highlighted the performances of Dalot and Alex Telles after the former fixture. “Our full-backs [played] forward and asked for the ball on the wing. So they almost played like wing-backs. Especially in the first-half, Alex and Diogo did extremely well offensively and that’s why I played 4-2-2-2.”

Rangnick congratulates Dalot after the Palace game

It is difficult to envisage Wan-Bissaka spearheading such an attacking shift. Dalot attempts more pressures than Wan-Bissaka and is more dominant in the air. Several opponents have exposed Wan-Bissaka’s air sickness with far post crosses he has misjudged.

Even during Michael Carrick’s ten-day caretaker tenure, Dalot’s advanced positioning for Arsenal’s goal kicks highlighted his tactical flexibility. Solskjaer failed to master it in the fortuitous home win over Villarreal when Dalot moved into midfield but was pegged back by the quicksilver Arnaut Danjuma.

Dalot accepted Danjuma had given him a chasing yet creditably spoke to reporters about the experience afterwards. So far this season, he is the only United player to have engaged with dedicated correspondents post-match on separate occasions.

Just three weeks ago, Jose Mourinho was pondering a reunion with Dalot in Rome. Mourinho, who suggested Dalot could be United’s next right-back for 10 years, has been watching Dalot closely since Callum Hudson-Odoi accidentally trod on Wan-Bissaka’s hand at Stamford Bridge. That has almost certainly secured Dalot’s future at United. A source close to Dalot says he is in his best moment at United.

When the chance came against Arsenal four days later, Dalot knew he had to strike a balance between defending and attacking, conscious Wan-Bissaka is regarded as the more secure defender. Dalot attempted as many pressures as Marcus Rashford and more than Cristiano Ronaldo, but also won all of his aerial duels.

Dalot’s 11th hour call-up to the Portugal squad for the European Championship turned heads. He had offers from AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, as well as other Serie A clubs. He rejected them all and sources close to the player reiterate he ‘loves’ United. His target has always been to make it at the club.

Dalot rubs shoulders with Gary Oldman during his first United tour in LA
Dalot rubs shoulders with Gary Oldman during his first United tour in LA

That was unlikely under Solskjaer. With Luke Shaw injured and Brandon Williams suspended for the post-restart fixture at Crystal Palace in July last year, the multi-functional Dalot seemed a certainty to start yet his camp were pessimistic. It was soon apparent why. Solskjaer revived Timothy Fosu-Mensah for his first United appearance in more than three years. Fosu-Mensah had just entered the last year of his contract and was sold in January.

Dalot retained a cordial relationship with Solskjaer and the pair warmly conversed as they emerged from the San Siro tunnel during United’s Europa League tie at Milan in March. Dalot, a starter in the first leg at Old Trafford, received positive feedback from Solskjaer and his coaching staff while in Italy and on international duty with Portugal.

United had to keep Dalot onside after they failed to make any headway in a prospective deal to sign Kieran Trippier. When Roma enquired about Dalot last month they were informed he would only be available in January if United signed Trippier. There is little incentive to continue down that avenue now.

Solskjaer with Dalot in Milan
Solskjaer with Dalot in Milan

Encouragement for Dalot continued at the start of this season yet Solskjaer failed to channel his playing experiences as a substitute into management. He was unable to communicate as ruthlessly with players allocated bench roles and Dalot was never outright told he was a distant second-choice to Wan-Bissaka, who was never dropped by Solskjaer.

Dalot expected more opportunities following his return from an uplifting season with Milan, where he stayed fit for the entire campaign. Dalot joined United whilst recovering from a meniscus injury that restricted him to two appearances in nearly four months. He endured three more separate and significant lay-offs but has been injury-free for almost 18 months and Dalot is meticulous with his recovery sessions, a practice he embraced in Milan.

Mourinho advises Dalot at Anfield
Mourinho advises Dalot at Anfield

During his Christmas in Italy, a number of Italy-based players embarked on an ill-advised winter getaway in Dubai and tested positive for Covid upon their return. Dalot eschewed the trip and stayed indoors, training in the gym in his apartment. He had seen how traumatised Italy was by the first wave of Covid and now often avoids socialising to limit the chance of contracting the virus.

“It’s no secret that it’s difficult when you don’t play as much as you wanted,” Dalot said. “But it’s our job to get ready and I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now, especially this season, and be ready when my time comes to give everything on the pitch.”

He has taken his chance.

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