Manchester United ground out another close win at Villa Park making it two wins out of two in the new season in a game where Louis Van Gaal’s side looked more comfortable at the back than they were going forward again, quite strangely, as very few would have expected such a scenario unfolding on the back of all the issues they face right from the goalkeeper dilemma to the pressing need to bring in a top centre-half to play alongside Chris Smalling. Although his current partner Daley Blind did have a fairly comfortable game on Friday, it’s the performance of the full-backs, especially that of right-sided Italian Matteo Darmian that caught the eye and it seemed the Red Devils had found a proper replacement for Gary Neville, finally.
It was an eventful night for Matteo Darmian as he constantly kept the Villa left flank quiet in open play, especially at times when Amavi looked more dangerous and direct than the right flank, which was largely pinned back by Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay for most part of the game. He made a total of 9 clearances ensuring the Villains had little to no joy down that side of the pitch. Besides clearing danger, the right back showed his mettle in dispossession and breaking up the opposition build-up during the early stages of first and second half with well-timed tackles and interceptions as the Italian made more of those combined than any other in that United side with 5 apiece.
But the most impressive aspect of Darmian’s game on Friday was his general awareness of what was happening around him and his sense of positioning, something that both Rafael and Valencia seriously lacked oftentimes. Maybe it’s a style best described as safety-first rather than being reactionary that sets Italian defenders apart in the football world, Darmian looked every bit as Italian as you’d expect him to be. Below one could see the heat map of the 25-year old (courtesy Whoscored.com) against Villa’s left flank composed of the pacy Sinclair and Amavi duo and it’s not surprising why Sherwood’s side couldn’t get behind United’s defence as much as they would have liked to.
Darmian’s position was higher up the pitch for someone that was usually very cautious about his positioning, frequently showing the inside to Sinclair who never really made much out of the scraps of possession he received in some decent areas, usually caught between the defensive triangle of Darmian, Smalling and Schneiderlin. Although Amavi ventured forward a few times using his pace with the ball, the Italian showed he was more than capable of handling it, blocking 2 crosses and keeping him at arm’s length for the best part of the game. His passing was relatively safer when compared to Luke Shaw, he managed to complete 34 out of 44 passes but it is interesting to note that only 25 of those were actually forward passes and he managed to complete 15 of them.
Of all the transfers made by Manchester United in the last two windows, a case can be made for Darmian as to why he is their best acquisition purely in terms of the degree of impact he could go on to make at Old Trafford in the long run, not to mention, for the price he was bought for. In other words, he’s so far been that antidote to failed big-money gambles in Di Maria and Falcao and credit should be given to Van Gaal for identifying the player and for bringing in someone who could not only play like Neville but also turn out as popular as him among the supporters.