Jose Mourinho once hailed former Manchester United goalkeeper Joel Pereira, now playing in the Netherlands with RKC Waalwijk, as “the best Portuguese goalkeeper of the next generation.” He doesn’t always get it right, but the manager can afford himself a smile at what Diogo Dalot is doing at Old Trafford this season.
Mourinho was in charge when Man United paid FC Porto £19 million to sign Dalot in 2018 and, on the day he arrived, labelled the 19-year-old as “the best full-back in Europe in his age group.” It seemed a remarkable tag for a player who had only made seven senior appearances for Porto. There have been times over the last four years when Mourinho’s assessment has seemed way off the mark.
But nearly three months into this season, Dalot is one of only two players — along with goalkeeper David de Gea — to have started every one of Erik ten Hag’s 15 games in charge. In the Premier League this season, no United player has had more touches of the ball than Dalot (769), while only Lisandro Martinez (500) and Bruno Fernandes (412) have made more completed passes than his 401.
Ask United fans which players have helped Ten Hag turn things around and they are likely to talk about Martinez, Raphael Varane or Christian Eriksen. Dalot, though, should be up there too.
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It wasn’t so long ago that he was loaned to Milan with then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — who oversaw the £50m signing of right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace just a year after Dalot arrived — suggesting he needed more game time than he could offer at Old Trafford.
Dalot was so keen to make the most of his time in Italy that he occasionally slept at the training ground to ensure he had access to recovery equipment. Injuries have been an issue in the past — he was limited to just 11 appearances during this second season in England — although most of the problems were put down to growing pains. But he has worked hard to stay as fit as possible and hasn’t had a significant injury for more than two years.
Solskjaer remained in regular contact during Dalot’s time in Milan and when the Serie A side tried to sign him permanently in the summer of 2021, their interest was knocked back. Solskjaer was always an admirer of Dalot’s ability as an attacking full-back but had doubts about his reliability defensively. The Norwegian noticed an improvement following his return from San Siro, something Dalot put down to the influence of Italian football.
“If I’m a better defender I owe it to Milan,” he said. “Italian football is different from the Premier League and I had to adapt in just one year and playing in Serie A has helped me a lot.”
So far this season, only Casemiro (25) has made more tackles in a United shirt than Dalot (20); only Martinez (46) and Varane (39) have made more clearances than his 21. Only Fernandes (111) has won more duals than Dalot’s 91.
Ten Hag has benefitted from Dalot being more certain of his defensive duties but has also pushed him to embrace his natural attacking instincts, something that has seen him usurp Wan-Bissaka, who can be limited going forward, in the first XI. Ten Hag has also asked Dalot to become an auxiliary central midfielder during different phases of the game, allowing him to see more of the ball.
“He likes offensive full-backs,” Dalot said of the former Ajax boss. “He likes proactive full-backs, so we have to always think a little bit ahead of what the game is asking, not be like feeling the game when the ball is on the other side.”
Dalot made sure he was ready to impress Ten Hag during preseason by using part of his summer holiday in Portugal to work with a personal trainer, physio and a nutritionist. A lot of the work centred around improving his agility and speed and, so far, it’s paying off — Dalot has clocked the third fastest sprint in the Premier League this season behind Darwin Nunez and Gabriel Martinelli.
In 2018, Mourinho was sure United had found a gem when they signed Dalot. After just one game, he was talking about the club finding a right-back for “the next 10 years” adding: “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.”
It has taken a while for Dalot to hit the heights predicted of him when he was a teenager but, now 23, Ten Hag is reaping the benefits. So too are Portugal, who beat the Czech Republic 4-0 during the last international break thanks, in part, to Dalot’s first two international goals.
After cementing his place as United’s first-choice right-back, he is set to go to the World Cup next month to challenge for a place in Fernando Santos’ team alongside teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernandes. Somewhere Mourinho will be watching on, no doubt making a note that he was right all along.