“In his age group, he is the best full-back in Europe.”
That’s how former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho described Diogo Dalot following his arrival at Old Trafford from Porto.
Dalot arrived in England aged 19 and Mourinho’s comments were not exaggerated. The defender had represented Portugal from under-15 to under-21 level and despite making only seven first-team appearances for Porto, he came with a reputation as one of the most promising full-backs in the world.
Mourinho gushed over his new recruit and backed him to be a huge success at the club. He said in 2018: “Diogo is an extremely talented young defender with all the qualities to quickly become a great player for this club. He has all the attributes that a full-back needs: physicality, tactical intelligence and technical quality, combined with a Porto Academy mentality which prepares players for the maturity they need at the professional level.”
Fast forward two years and Dalot finds himself at a crossroads in his career after being shipped out on loan to AC Milan during the summer transfer window.
Injuries and the arrival of Aaron Wan-Bissaka restricted Dalot to just 11 appearances in all competitions last season, playing just 65 minutes in the Premier League. Therefore, it was no surprise to see United offload the Portuguese despite him being a favourite among supporters.
One thing is for certain, Dalot should not be categorised with the likes of Chris Smalling, Alexis Sanchez and Andreas Pereira – players who were loaned out because they had or have no future at Old Trafford. It is telling that United refused to include an option to buy as part of Dalot’s loan to Italy. United’s decision to do so already looks justified following Dalot’s first two appearances for Milan.
The defender made his debut in the Europa League against Celtic on October 22 and stole the headlines seven days later against Sparta Praha while featuring as a left-back. In the second half, Dalot found space down the Milan left and delivered an inch-perfect cross with the outside of his right boot which found the onrushing Rafael Leao to double their lead at the San Siro. Nine minutes later, Dalot opened his account for Milan. The youngster made a run from inside his own half to exploit Praha’s high line before finishing expertly on his left foot.
While it is still too early to judge Dalot’s spell away from the club, United are in a position to win no matter what happens next. Reports in Italy suggest Milan are already keen to discuss a permanent deal for him, but United still hold all the cards thanks to their decision to refuse the option-to-buy clause. Should his impressive performances continue and United choose to cash in, his price will only increase, be that for Milan or another interested party. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can then use the funds generated from Dalot’s sale to buy the world-class defender he wanted and didn’t get during the summer.
However, there is no reason why Dalot cannot have a long-term future at United. He has three years remaining on his contract and is still United’s best attacking full-back bar Alex Telles. No one can question Wan-Bissaka’s ability defensively but his offensive output remains a cause for concern. Can Dalot oust the former Crystal Palace man as a guaranteed starter? Maybe not. Can he provide Solskjaer with a viable alternative at right-back? Definitely.
The United boss has already experimented with a number of formations this season, finding success with wing-backs against Paris Saint-Germain – a system that could suit Dalot to a tee. He celebrated his first Milan goal by checking his pulse and if he continues to showcase his talents in Italy, he might find his United career is still alive.