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Matteo Darmian: Manchester United’s Mr. Versatile

Matteo Darmian recently left Torino for Manchester United, joining the English Premier League giants for a reported fee of £12.7 million. Amid the frenzy of transfer activity and constant rumour mill surrounding his new club, Darmian’s arrival at Old Trafford went slightly under the radar. His transfer provoked questions as opposed to grand proclamations. Here we provide a detailed tactical and statistical analysis of how and where the Italian will fit in at his new club.

The Basics

Darmian is a 25-year-old Italian international defender who made his name with Torino. After coming through AC Milan’s youth system and making his debut for the Rossoneri, he was farmed out to Padova in 2009 before Palermo bought part of his contract in a co-ownership agreement. A loan spell with Torino in Serie B followed, and it was there, under the tutelage of experienced coach Giampiero Ventura, that Darmian began to thrive.

Darmian aided Torino back into Serie A and helped ensure their survival with superb performances that saw him included in the 2013-14 season’s team of the year. On the back of that, he was called into the Italian national team by Cesare Prandelli. After making his international debut against the Republic of Ireland in a friendly on 31 May 2014, he was included in Prandelli’s 2014 World Cup squad the very next day. He then started all of Italy’s World Cup games, playing particularly well in the opener against England, as the Azzurri were knocked out at the group stage.

Since then his startling rise to prominence has continued apace as part of another successful Torino campaign in 2014-15 that included a foray into the Europa League, where Darmian scored the match-winning goal away to Athletic Bilbao to enable the club’s progress to the last 16.


Initially a centre-back, Darmian has grown into one of the finest all-round full-backs in the world today. Torino coach Ventura prefers a 3-5-2 system with both of the wing-backs tearing down the flanks, something that requires plenty of attacking moxy.

Darmian is sound defensively and, with an ability to play on either flank, is also tactically very intelligent. Those aren’t particularly sexy traits for a modern full-back to possess, but they are extremely useful. As mentioned before however, you don’t play as a wing-back in Ventura’s 3-5-2 without having some offensive qualities, and Darmian likes to get forward.

torino line up

The versatile Darmian was utilised as a left-wing-back at Torino last season.

Comparisons aren’t always helpful, though in Darmian’s case – given he is still relatively unknown to English football fans – they can provide a reasonable point of reference.

For recognisable names to compare him too, Phillip Lahm is perhaps the most accurate given both are capable of performing on the right or left and combine defensive and attacking ability with positional nous. For former Manchester United players, Darmian is perhaps the closest thing to Gary Neville since the man himself. Neville is appreciative of Darmian’s attributes, recently saying:

“I like the Darmian signing. Watched him a lot in planning for Italy. If he can transfer his form and settle in then he will be very good.”

Position Change

Darmian had been playing as a left-sided wing-back for Torino although that is highly unlikely to continue at Manchester United, where Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are the most obvious candidates for any left-sided full-back or wing-back roles. Instead, Darmian will be utilised on the right.

This would normally be considered a potentially troublesome switch, but Darmian is versatile, right-footed and therefore just as capable on the right as he is on the left. The only tactical difference will be that instead of cutting inside in an attacking situation, he will now more often go around the outside of the opposition left-back.

The more important adaptation for Darmian will be playing in a new system. Louis van Gaal dispensed with the notion of using a back three last season and achieved better results with a back four, something that pre-season suggests will continue, with van Gaal opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Given this, and that there is a greater prevalence of out-and-out wingers in English Premier League teams relative to Serie A, it is possible that Darmian will have more defensive responsibility than he has been used to in the past.

It must be pointed out, however, that one of Darmian’s defining performances thus far came as a right-back in a back four. The performance in question was Italy’s opening game of the 2014 World Cup against England. Roy Hodgson decided to field an attacking 4-2-3-1-cum-4-2-4 formation with Wayne Rooney on the left wing. As such, Rooney was technically Darmian’s opposite man, but he didn’t do a good job of tracking the Italian. Darmian continuously exploited the space in front of him and was a constant attacking thorn for England left-back Leighton Baines.

italy england

Darmian’s defining international performance came at right-back against England.

Tactical Concerns

As well as playing in a different position, Darmian will have to adapt to a new style of football; not only do van Gaal and Ventura’s methods differ drastically, but Manchester United are in a completely different situation to Torino. Manchester United tend to enter most games as favourites and aim to dominate the ball and win the match, while for Torino this is not so often the case.

The statistics offer a tangible glimpse into the stylistic differences between Darmian’s old and new team. Last season, Manchester United averaged 61.1 per cent possession per game, the highest in the Premier League, whereas Torino averaged 48.3 per cent. United scored 69 per cent of their 62 league goals from open play, while of Torino’s 48 league goals, only 54 per cent came from open play.

Each team’s preferred route to goal differed too. 73 per cent of United’s attacks came from the left or right wing, seven per cent more than Torino. No team in Serie A attacked more through the middle than the Granata. However, the most glaring contrast came in action zones. No team in Serie A saw more action in their own half of the pitch than Torino (Verona were equal on 31 per cent). United had more action in opposition territory than in their own.

Essentially, these statistics back up what has already been said – that Manchester United will dominate possession, space and the overall game in the Premier League more frequently than Torino do in Serie A. But what do these statistics mean to Darmian?

United tend to have far more possession per game than Torino and score relatively more of their goals from open play, therefore Darmian may have to get used to a less cut-and-thrust approach, with greater emphasis on accurate, effective distribution. Because of United’s possession game, he will probably find less space to race into on the counter-attack with the opposition sitting in front of him. This will require additional ingenuity, meaning we should find out a bit more about the exact level of Darmian’s attacking ability.

Darmian vs. Valencia

Darmian impressed on Manchester United’s pre-season tour of the United States, starting in all four of their friendly games at right-back. His high level of involvement was in part due to Antonio Valencia’s absence through injury. With Valencia returning as a substitute in the friendly against Barcelona, the race for the right-back berth is well underway.

Van Gaal has been quite forthright over the issue of who will start in this position, telling the press that Darmian was signed “for the second position behind Valencia.” This pronouncement was slightly surprising; it was widely assumed that Darmian had been signed to fill the right-back spot, which has been a long-standing problem position for the club.

Evidently Darmian will have to work to earn a starting place, so it’s worth assessing how he and Valencia compare statistically.

Defensively, it appears there is little to separate the pair. Last season, Valencia won more tackles but his tackle success percentage was 50 per cent, just barely better than Darmian’s 49 per cent. Valencia made more interceptions, perhaps suggesting his greater awareness and reading of the game, however Darmian won more of his overall duels, a sign that he is perhaps better at timing a challenge and succeeding in individual battles.

Going forward, the statistics portray Valencia as arguably more consistent though not as effectively creative as Darmian. Not only did the Ecuadorian make far more passes per 90 minutes than Darmian, but he also had much better pass accuracy; his was 89 per cent compared to Darmian’s 78 per cent. However, despite making less passes, Darmian made more key passes and created more chances.

Given Valencia began his Manchester United career as an out-and-out winger with pace to burn, it is logical that his attacking qualities better those of Darmian, who began his professional career as a central defender. This difference in positional origin can be seen more clearly in their dribbling statistics, where Valencia obtained 58.33 per cent successful take on rate compared to Darmian’s 47.54 per cent.

Context is crucial for all statistics, however, and it must be noted that – although his dribbling and passing stats are worse – Darmian accrued these numbers playing for a Torino side that, as aforementioned, places far greater emphasis on the counter-attack and plays with a more reactionary style than Manchester United. Surrounded by the likes of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney and Memphis Depay, Darmian’s attacking statistics should improve.

Given this, as well as Darmian’s positive beginnings, youth and resultant unfulfilled potential, the Italian should not take too much time to establish himself as Manchester United’s first-choice right-back.

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