The development of elite footballers rarely follows a smooth trajectory, but when Diogo Dalot was heralded as Manchester United’s right-back for the next decade he probably didn’t expect to be playing against them a little over two years later.
Dalot had made just two Premier League starts when Jose Mourinho made his bold prediction in December 2018, but then Mourinho had hardly been shy in discussing the potential of the teenager United spent £19million on.
He described him as the “best-full-back in Europe” in his age group when completing the deal with Porto. Then after Dalot had shone in a win over Fulham he suggested United’s issues at right-back were over for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t want to compare, especially not the number of titles but he is probably the same age as Gary Neville when he came into the first team,” said Mourinho.
“Probably he can follow Neville in this dynamic of more than 10 years as United’s right-back, with amazing conditions to improve, because as I was saying he’s 19 years old.”
Within seven months of that statement United had spent £45million on a right-back only two years Dalot’s senior so evidently, not everyone shared the same belief in the Portugal youngster.
There were another nine Premier League starts under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2018/19, but last season Dalot played just 66 minutes in the Premier League. Initially affected by hip and groin injuries, he was anonymous once the season restarted in June, making an enlarged substitutes bench in just two of their final nine Premier League games and seeing Timothy Fosu-Mensah start ahead of him.
On Thursday Dalot will be back at Old Trafford with AC Milan and he should see the two Europa League last-16 ties as a chance to remind Solskjaer of his own qualities.
His loan move to AC Milan has certainly restored a degree of confidence. There have been 20 appearances across Serie A and the Europa League and his goal in the league win over Hellas Verona on Sunday was his second, as well as providing two assists.
Dalot has split his time on the pitch for Milan between right-back and left-back, with his goal coming from left-back on Sunday, but you would expect his long-term future to lie on the right.
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The question is whether that is at United or not. Solskjaer clearly had doubts about him last season, but at 21 Dalot is young enough to improve and come again.
United have also been desperate for some support for Aaron Wan-Bissaka this season. The January departure of Fosu-Mensah has reduced Solskjaer’s options at right-back, although he wasn’t playing anyway. Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe could over cover, but United have been reluctant to do anything but play Wan-Bissaka.
If he’s improved for his Serie A loan spell then Dalot could perhaps offer the competition required. He should see these games as a chance to show that is the case and he is certainly looking forward to Thursday’s game.
“It’s a special occasion, I can’t say it’s not,” Dalot told MilanTV. “I’m happy to see my friends from Manchester United again, and a stadium that has given me a lot.
“But now I’m a Milan player and if I’ll play, I will give my best for this club.”
If Solskjaer’s mind is already made up, then Dalot’s slight resurgence in Milan should at least open up a market for him this summer. Selling squad players might be vital in raising funds for a summer shopping spree and with a right-back as an essential requirement, getting a good price for Dalot could help fund a replacement.