Matteo Darmian has had a steady start to life in Manchester. What has stood out about the Italian is that his defensive attributes are more prominent than his attacking ones, a rarity in full-backs nowadays. Ross Eaton expands on the full-backs solidity and versatility.
Matteo Darmian has had a solid start to his Manchester United career, following a debut ‘Man of the Match’ performance against Spurs, Darmian has helped United to 3 more clean sheets in the Premier League, as well as conceding just 5 goals in the league up until the 3-0 defeat against Arsenal. Darmian has impressed not just at right-back but also as a full-back on the opposite flank, featuring there due to Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break.
When Darmian has not been present on United’s right flank, the Reds have looked defensively weak on that side and Antonio Valencia, who fills in at right-back when Darmian isn’t playing there, has looked very exposable. The versatility Darmian has shown with the move from right to left full-back is very good, he has displayed the same attributes on the left as he showed on the right.
Darmian is a solid full-back who puts his defensive duties at the top of his priority list, his positioning and timing of tackles mark him a difficult player to get past as a winger. His passing is also completely sound, which suits Manchester United’s passing game and he can win a header well against taller opponents, this is likely from experience filling in as a centre-back a few times at Torino. Although Darmian’s attacking qualities aren’t what you’d expect from a modern full-back, the Italian does what is required by providing a little width when necessary and can do at least the minimum of what his team needs from him when attacking. As a left-back this clever playing style, knowing his attacking limits but fulfilling the job when necessary, has served him well.
Darmian often plays simple passes down the line to Memphis Depay or Anthony Martial who can provide width on the left flank rather than Darmian having to move into an unfamiliar position where he may struggle to cross or create a chance with his weaker foot. Speaking of Darmian’s left foot, this is another excellent aspect of his game, Darmian can use his left foot very well and it certainly isn’t much of a hindrance when playing on the left.
Prior to his move to United, Darmian played at right-back with previous club Torino, mostly in a 4-3-3 formation, however from time to time Torino played in a 3-5-2. In this formation there is obviously no right-back, just a right wing-back and right centre-back. Darmian was used mostly in the right wing-back position, with mixed results. Obviously the wing-back must provide width in the attacking phase, not Darmian’s best quality and at times the Italian looked lost and in desperate need of support on the wing. However, it was in difficult games in which Darmian shone, defending in a deep block, Darmian was often defending in a 1v1 with the opposition winger and as previously mentioned, Darmian is very strong in these situations.
As well as playing as a wing-back, Darmian sometimes had to cover for an injury or suspension, or even a change of personnel was needed at right centre-back. In this role Darmian always looked comfortable and despite never playing as a centre-back before, he rarely made a mistake positionally and looked to know the role inside out instantly.
For around half the 2014/15 season, Manchester United lined-up in a 3-5-2. Throughout the course of this formation being in use, Louis van Gaal experimented with Tyler Blackett, Daley Blind, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling as the outer centre-backs. Despite experimenting with 5 different players as the outer centre-backs, just one player, Daley Blind, looked comfortable in this role. Although Chris Smalling hugely improved last season and was one of United’s best players throughout the campaign, he only began to really impress when used in a formation with 4 defenders. If Matteo Darmian had been signed one season earlier and had the ability and experience he has now, then he would have been another used at right centre-back. His abilities certainly fit the bill; he can tackle, head, position himself well and also pass, a key attribute an outer centre-back must have under Louis van Gaal.
One reason the 3-5-2 didn’t succeed at United was that they didn’t have a back three in which all three players were comfortable in the positions they were playing. A back three of Darmian, Smalling and Blind would have offered continuity and solidity throughout the season, as all three rarely pick up injuries and are also very consistent. Smalling and Blind discovered some consistency last season, this being a key factor in their personal successful seasons.
Darmian also seems like the kind of player the likes of Pep Guardiola and Louis van Gaal would deploy as a right centre-back if a back-three formation was in use at that club at the time. If managed by Guardiola (this is a possibility following rumours of Guardiola to United) Darmian may be used similarly to the way David Alaba has been used at Bayern. When used as an outer centre-back, Alaba is given the freedom to step into midfield in possession due to his dribbling and passing ability, while remaining in the defensive line when defending. If Darmian was to improve his dribbling ability, it would be very realistic for him emulate the movement of Alaba driving into midfield when space opens up. If, and this is a big if, Guardiola was to become Manchester United manager, maybe this is something we would see. Currently however, Pep Guardiola is not Manchester United manager and Darmian will remain playing as a right-back, perhaps even for many years to come.
Written by Ross Eaton
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