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Analysis: Could one of Man United’s least expensive summer signings be their best?

The Red Devils got their Premier League campaign off to a winning start, beating Spurs 1-0 at the weekend.

Darmian pictured in action against Tottenham on Saturday.
Darmian pictured in action against Tottenham on Saturday.

THERE HAS BEEN much pre-season talk about Man United’s big-money summer signings and the impact they might have.

However, on Saturday, against Tottenham, it was one of the Red Devils’ less high-profile acquisitions, full-back Matteo Darmian, who impressed most, as United ran out 1-0 winners to get their Premier League campaign off to a winning start.

Background

Despite only being 25, Darmian previously made over 100 appearances for Torino in Serie A, following earlier brief stints at Milan, Padova and Palermo.

Darmian impressed in particular in the 2013-14 campaign, featuring in the Serie A Team of the Season and going on to star at that summer’s World Cup, having only made his international debut the previous May against Ireland in a friendly.

Consequently, Darmian — who United signed from Torino for just under €18million — was unlikely to be daunted by the prospect of making his debut at Old Trafford — after all, if Milan’s decision to put him in their side aged 16 is anything to go by, he is not the type of character who gets phased easily.

Yet despite the arrivals of players such as Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger overshadowing the purchase of Darmian to a degree, on the evidence of Saturday, the Italian could well turn out to be just as important an acquisition as his more talked-about counterparts.

Early nerves

Nonetheless, despite what was by and large an assured debut, Darmian showed signs of nerves early on.

 

Early in the game, a poor first touch enabled Nacer Chadli to close him down, though the debutant recovered to a degree to earn a throw-in.

Shortly thereafter, Darmian was clearly caught out, allowing Christian Eriksen to get goal side of him as Harry Kane laid on an intelligent through ball. Fortunately for United and Darmian however, the Dane guided his attempt just over the bar.

 

These minor blips from Darmian were an anomaly, however, as he appeared to grow in confidence from that point on.

Attacking ambition

United improved and controlled the game more as the first-half developed, and Darmian benefitted as a result.

high up

The Italian did not hesitate to get forward at every available opportunity, with teammates often using him as an outlet on the right.

surging

With right-sided midfielder Juan Mata often tending to tuck in to the more central areas of the pitch, there was plenty of space for Darmian to exploit, and so at times, the speedy full-back was effectively operating as a winger.

Tottenham were consequently given their first warning of the game, with Mata and Darmian linking up well. Nevertheless, following the latter’s impressive surging run, his cross was claimed by Spurs goalkeeper Michel Vorm with relative ease. It was by no means the only time in the game that the Italian would threaten down Tottenham’s left flank.

The simple things

Right-back has been a problem for Man United of late, with Rafael, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia all tried there at various points last season.

The two best United players in that position in modern times, Denis Irwin and Gary Neville, were largely defined by their ability to invariably do the simple things well.

Darmian followed suit at the weekend. He rarely did anything outstanding, but time and again, he proved a reassuring presence in the backline, quietly efficient in stemming any danger on the rare enough occasions when Tottenham threatened.

He was up against Nacer Chadli, a player who chipped in with an impressive 11 goals last year, yet the Belgian international had a conspicuously ineffectual 90 minutes, largely thanks to Darmian constantly preventing him from finding any space to get shots and crosses in.

Defensive prowess

Given Darmian’s considerable pace and constant desire to get forward, he will inevitably be labelled an ‘attacking’ full-back.

However, unlike many of these types of players, Darmian is also an accomplished defender — in the 2013-14 season, he made the most tackles per game of any defender across Europe’s top five leagues.

The player’s defensive instincts were evident again at the weekend. Watch the clip below and notice how he masterfully deals with the threat of Harry Kane, forcing him on to his weaker left foot and ultimately averting the danger.

In addition to his exemplary tackling ability, Darmian also reads the game superbly and generally has a good awareness of what’s going on around him, as these two important interceptions illustrate.

This renewed focus on defence didn’t stop him from continuing his ambitious forward runs, however.

Quieter second half

Darmian had a much quieter second half. There were two reasons for this — United were understandably a little more cautious with a victory increasingly in sight, while Tottenham were disappointing in attack after the break in particular, only really showing signs of life as United grew nervy in the final 10 minutes.

However, that is not to say the second half was without positive moments for Darmian. He continued to look very solid defensively. Watch the clips below, as he shows significant pace and power to get the better of Eriksen and Kane respectively.

Darmian also still ventured far forward when possible, and was at the heart of one particularly good piece of play, as a clever one-two with Mata set him sprinting off down the right. There wasn’t much wrong with his subsequent cross either, but Wayne Rooney — who was having one of his less effective afternoons — failed to make the most of the chance.

Substitution

Darmian was eventually replaced by Antonio Valencia with nine minutes of normal time remaining in what was a straight swap.

The Italian was taken off, not because he was having a poor game, but because he began to suffer from cramp in the dying stages — an indication that he has yet to reach peak fitness and could get even better in the coming games.

Darmian was unsurprisingly given a rousing reception from the Old Trafford faithful, who clearly recognised what was a very accomplished performance.

Even some Man United players who went on to become a success in their careers at Old Trafford, such as Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, endured difficult starts to life in England, so for Darmian to get off to such a positive start is no small feat.

Conclusion

Of course, it’s early days, and last season, Angel Di Maria proved that first impressions aren’t everything.

However, on the basis of Saturday’s display, there seems no obvious reason why Matteo Darmian can’t go on to be a big success at United.

He was among the top-scoring players in most journalists’ player ratings for the game, and Van Gaal reserved special praise for Darmian after the match, commenting:

“I said to Memphis [Depay] that he doesn’t have to play too eagerly and with too much passion and that counts for the whole team. But it’s always the same — the first time you play at Old Trafford it’s always difficult, but I liked the performance especially from Darmian.”

So in the case of Darmian at least, it appears the Red Devils have done some very good business indeed.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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