Manchester United are far from the finished article but, after a rocky start to the season in which they lost to Brighton and Brentford, conceding six goals in the process, the signs are positive for Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman must have been worried about his team after the first two weeks of the campaign, but they have recovered well and sit just a point below the Champions League places with a game in hand on fourth-placed Newcastle.
After a barren run – they have not won a trophy since José Mourinho guided them to success in the Europa League more than five years ago – Ten Hag seems to be getting United back on track. Fans now go to Old Trafford confident that the team will pick up all the spoils, as they have done in four of their last five games, with Newcastle the only side to leave Manchester with a result in that run.
The new additions deserve praise. There were plenty of doubts about Lisandro Martínez given his height, but he has adjusted well to the Premier League and is showing why he is nicknamed “the butcher”. Casemiro and Christian Eriksen have improved the midfield in different ways, while Antony has proven an enjoyable and prolific right winger for United, scoring three goals in just six league appearances.
Ten Hag has also made his mark on the old guard at Old Trafford. United had become stagnant before the manager arrived in the summer. Cristiano Ronaldo has been demoted, the Portuguese forward starting just three league games under Ten Hag, but there are others who had become far too comfortable in their surroundings.
United were not threatening enough from wide positions last season and needed more attacking impetus from their full-backs. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is defensively solid, but he does not contribute enough offensively; in 127 games for United he has only scored twice and provided 10 assists. He made 26 appearances for the club last season and picked up more red cards (one) than he contributed goals or assists (none). The 24-year-old has not developed the offensive side of his game and has been duly restricted to just four minutes of action this season.
Wan-Bissaka has had to watch on as Diogo Dalot has taken his place and excelled under Ten Hag. Right-back was a problem position for United, who were linked with moves for the Dutch defenders, Denzel Dumfries of Inter and Jurrien Timber of Ajax, but Dalot is making the spot his own. Competition was hardly rife given Wan-Bissaka’s offensive shortcomings, but Dalot has thrived down the right flank. Only Bruno Fernandes (29) has created more goalscoring chances than Dalot (20) for United in the league this season. United tend to attack more down their left side – 41% of their attacks go down their left flank compared to just 32%, the joint-lowest in the Premier League, down their right flank – but Dalot makes the most of his opportunities to get forward.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Dalot at United and one that nearly had a premature end last year. José Mourinho signed him from Porto in 2018 for £19m. “The chance of coming to the biggest club in the world is something I just couldn’t turn down,” said the 19-year-old full-back. He struggled with injuries and his appearances were limited under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who preferred the solidity that Wan Bissaka gave the defence.
Dalot spent the 2020-21 season on loan at Milan and, while not a first-team regular for the Rossoneri – just 10 of his 21 appearances in Serie A came from the outset – the club saw enough to try to sign him permanently. Dalot says he enjoyed his time in Italy but, when the loan spell finished, he turned down the chance to extend his stay and instead returned to England and vowed to fight for his place. “In the end I decided to stay at United and it was the right decision,” he said in September.
Dalot enjoyed more opportunities towards the end of last season under Ralf Rangnick and he showed positive signs that he could be the attacking outlet United need at right-back. He has also improved the defensive side of his game, which he credits to his time in Italy. “If I’m a better defender, I owe it to Milan,” he says. “Italian football is different from the Premier League. I had to adapt in just one year and playing in Serie A has helped me a lot.” He is being dribbled past just 0.7 times per 90 minutes this season.
Dalot looks like a player who is full of confidence. He is contributing in the final third, with more touches than any other United player this season, and is doing his bit in what has become one of the tightest defences in the league. United are unbeaten in their last eight games and have only conceded four goals in that run. They look like a very different team to the one that conceded four goals in 25 minutes against Brentford in August.
It’s still early days in Ten Hag’s rebuild, but there is a semblance of an identity returning to United, which has been missing in recent years. Rather than dread the weekend’s fixtures, fans are excited about what to expect from their side. A work in progress, yes, but Dalot encapsulates perfectly what Ten Hag is looking for in his squad – an exciting youngster who is keen to develop and offers more than the player he replaced.