Ever since Matteo Darmian joined Manchester United from Torino, the Italian has hardly replicated the form that he showed in the Serie A for around two or three seasons before setting foot at the Theatre of Dreams for the very first time in 2015. Louis van Gaal shelled out £12.7 million for the full-back and lauded him for coming up with a man of the match performance on his debut against Tottenham, but the Azzurri international failed to establish himself as a first-team regular throughout the Dutchman’s last campaign at Old Trafford.
Reports have linked Darmian with a move back to Italy, Juventus to be specific, and while a host of United fans haven’t overly enjoyed watching Darmian play, others fear what looks like a potential loss to a Champions League rival. And those who are fearing Darmian’s loss already would be well aware of how important a player the Italian can become for a Jose Mourinho team, if not for anyone else.
The 27-year-old came to England with a reputation of being a full-back who is adept on both flanks and has that knack for being a proper Italian defender, who has played in the five at the back shape a lot of times in the past. That was enough to suggest that he would come in handy but Darmian has lacked the ability to take defenders on and beat them or lift people off their seat with a flair move. You’d have never seen him give the impression of being a modern-day attack minded full back or come up with the flamboyant moves that Luke Shaw occasionally comes up with.
When he first came in, people realised that he had the ability to do well in games where a team desires a full-back or a wing-back who knows how to go about his job silently and discreetly. He won’t do anything out of the ordinary, but it’s his completeness that makes him reliable and his trademark Italian mentality gives him the edge when attempting to dig out games.
He was taken apart by Alexis Sanchez at the Emirates in the 3-0 loss to Arsenal last season and subsequently failed to keep himself in the starting XI under van Gaal. Even when he played, he hardly did anything that separated him from the rest of the players in the side. Under Mourinho, Darmian once again struggled for action early on in the campaign but Mourinho’s rotation policy allowed the former Palermo man a way back into the side.
When the season was coming to an end and Mourinho was players keeping fit for the cup games, it was Darmian whose role ended up being a vital one. Be it the Europa League final in Stockholm, the two semi-finals or the two quarter-finals, Darmian impressed a lot of fans who were constantly criticising him for not being the kind of full-back that United need. He came up with a near man of the match showing against Peter Bosz’s Ajax but hardly got recognition for that as the others took away all the credit.
And it’s that hardworking attitude and work-ethic that defines Darmian and his Italian instincts. From the times when the Catenaccio system was invented by Helenio Herrera and the likes, Italy have earned this reputation for producing full-backs who win you games in the most pragmatic ways possible. They won’t glitter too much in attack but will defend their hearts out for you. If that’s not the kind of a full-back that you like, it doesn’t make too much of a difference because Mourinho is made for players like him and vice-versa.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was seen doing the dirty work against Ajax, while Jesse Lingard has done the job in that position a lot of times in front of Darmian. United were made to dig out the knockout games against both Anderlecht and Celta Vigo and it during this phase that Darmian enjoyed his best bit of games in England because he fits into those demands and knows what it takes to do that sort of a job.
And if there’s any manager who thrives on working players like that, then it’s Mourinho himself. He wants his players to work hard and sit deep a lot of times during games, especially in the bigger ones or the ones in which his side is a goal or up. It’s his pragmatic approach, or what Cesar Luis Menotti famously terms to be a ‘leftist approach to football’ that won United the Europa League.
United nullified the attack of the opposition and took the sting out of games. Even against Chelsea at Old Trafford and against the duo of Liverpool and Manchester City away from home, United resorted to a similar style to render the opposition’s attack useless. The wingers dropped deep, worked hard and the full-back had support.
It’s in these kind of situations that Darmian excels and has excelled and with Mourinho slowly coming into his own and making signings that reflect his style, one can expect to see United play the Mourinho way. And people can go on about how Marouane Fellaini is that no-nonsense Mourinho type player but Darmian too falls under the same bracket.