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There weren’t many positives to take away from Manchester United’s exit to West Ham United in the Carabao Cup.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 11 changes for the match as he gave all of his fringe players the chance to get some much needed minutes under their belts and an opportunity to fight their way into his side on a more regular basis.
Not many of them made a good argument as to why they should be featuring more often. In fact, only one did: Diogo Dalot.
The versatile full-back has repeatedly shown promise since he was brought to United by Jose Mourinho from Porto in 2018 but has never been able to establish himself in the side.
Last year he was sent on a season-long loan to Italian giants AC Milan to gain some high-level first-team experience and he impressed at the San Siro. He made 33 appearances (only five less than his tally for United), scored twice and picked up three assists.
Dalot returned to Manchester in the summer full of renewed vigour, with a late call-up to the Portugal squad for Euro 2020 another nice confidence boost, but his days at the club still appeared numbered.
Milan reportedly wanted him back on a permanent basis, with other Serie A clubs being linked and, even more ominous for his future, United were actively hunting for another right-back.
The club wanted to bring Kieran Trippier back to Manchester from Atletico Madrid to offer experienced and quality competition for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, with frustrations growing over his attacking output.
Bury-native Trippier appeared to be the perfect fit. The 31-year-old has proven Premier Leaue quality, possesses a wicked delivery in open play and from set-pieces, has experience in the biggest club and international competitions, had improved the defensive side of his game after two years playing for Diego Simeone and, crucially, was coming towards the end of his contract in Spain.
Kieran Trippier was linked with a move to Manchester United throughout the summer. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images) It seemed like an astute deal but, unfortunately, that didn’t work for Atletico who demanded a price beyond United’s valuation and thus a deal never came to fruition.
Instead, Dalot would play understudy at right-back, for a year at least.
But when handed his first opportunity of the campaign against West Ham on Wednesday, the Portuguese showed that he could perhaps be even more than that and can certainly challenge Wan-Bissaka for his place.
After Solskjaer’s side went a goal down just nine minutes in, it was Dalot who was the driving force behind their fight-back, even if it was eventually in vain. He repeatedly charged up the right-flank and was a real threat, sending in multiple teasing crosses and always offering an outlet.
He even should have got the elusive equaliser in the second-half. He played a smart ball inside to Donny van de Beek and continued his run goalwards, when the midfielder’s cut-back was cut-out, Dalot was there to meet it and lash a shot goalwards but it went wide of the post.
Dalot was also pretty solid defensively, too, winning 100 per cent of his aerial duels, four out of his five tackles and making two clearances. It was the more senior Alex Telles who was the weak link in the defence and was easily beaten for the goal, though it was his first game back after injury.
It was certainly a promising display from the 22-year-old, whose improvement after a year in Italy is clear to see. If he can continue to put in strong displays whenever given a chance, there’s nothing saying he can’t fight his way into the side and it will also help United in next summer’s transfer window.
Declan Rice of West Ham United (Image: Alex Davidson/Getty Images) It’s clear for everyone to see that the missing piece in United’s side is a combative defensive-midfielder who can protect the defence but also has a range of passing to help start attacks. That’s the priority signing for United in 2022 and Declan Rice has been earmarked as the top target.
A new right-back may also still be on the agenda at present though, which would serve to distract United from their priority and lower the amount they are able to spend on Rice, who will likely still cost a pretty penny even if there’s a year less on his contract.
But if Dalot can lessen the need for a new right-back to be signed then that means United can focus all their energy and budget on bringing in the final piece of their jigsaw.
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