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Can Matteo Darmian still recover from his poor form?

When Manchester United signed Matteo Darmian last year, there must’ve been a lot of head scratching from fans. A right back from a mid table Serie A side, and he’s not even that young? What’s the point in that? But I was excited. He had been with the Italy national team the year before for the World Cup, and when they faced England in the group stage, he came up against Wayne Rooney at left-wing. He dominated Rooney, kept him quiet whilst blowing past him to attack on the wing. He went from strength to strength the following season while still maintaining a relatively low profile at Torino, consistently coming up with the goods on both flanks.

He showed an ability to read the game that not many full backs have, helping Torino to finish ninth in the league, and all the way to the round of 16 of the Europa League in their first season in 12 years. His form attracted some of the biggest clubs in the world, with the likes of Bayern Munich being United’s main competitor, and when United secured his signing I genuinely believed they were signings one of Europe’s best full backs.

And after some very promising signs early in his United career, it’s safe to say Darmian hasn’t been exactly that. He began to falter after his first month, and a face-off against Alexis Sanchez in United’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in October 2015 seemed like it buried his confidence for good.

Fast forward to today, over a year later, he still hasn’t gotten his United career back on track. He’s lost his right back spot to Antonio Valencia, who is in the form of his life since converting from a winger, and has been playing on the left with Luke Shaw repeatedly unavailable due to injury, a side which has always been his weaker one. And if Valencia is playing at the best he’s ever been, Darmian’s at his worst.

He has been caught out of position so many times and so badly that he’d be nowhere near his designated position when United are under attack, where he’d be bailed out by the winger playing in front of him or the centre back next to him. And when he is in the right place to  face a winger, he’s hopeless at one-on-ones with a winger with pace. Look no further than his attempts to defend Moussa Sissoko, who’s pace and strength barely covers his lack of technical ability, as evidence.

In hindsight, some of his struggles could’ve been predictable. He was never a quick player, having started out as a centre back, and at Torino he played as wing back in a 3-5-2, in a league with very little emphasis on wing play. He rarely had to come up against pacy wingers, and if he was, he had a wider positioned  centre back to cover for him. Transitioning from that to playing in a physically challenging league with a reliance on pacy wingers would be difficult, but that should’ve been covered when United were scouting him, and not an excuse for his poor form. At least not after one and a half seasons.

Despite his struggling form, it seems like he’s still in Jose Mourinho’s good books. Since Shaw’s last league game at the end of October, Darmian has started all but one of seven league games. This could have something to do with the last game Daley Blind started before Shaw’s extended absence, the 4-0 defeat to  Chelsea, but two months after that Darmian still has Mourinho’s trust. Granted, his form has dipped even more recently, which could change the manager’s mind, but this remains to be seen.

Darmian does still have that ability to read the game, proven by his performance against West Brom at the weekend. He struggled for pace and in positioning, but he still came up with some good interceptions.  What he has failed in is adapting his strengths and weaknesses to the Premier League. But the fact that he still  has Mourinho’s trust could be his lifeline. Mourinho hasn’t been shy in excluding players he has no use form, and in rewarding those who work hard with a good attitude. It’s possible that, unseen to us, Darmian’s work ethic in training and commitment could be what Mourinho values in him, but he needs to get his act together quickly, especially with the January window looming.

Written by Adimurti Pramana

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