Sometimes, all we need in life is a little push. In Victor Lindelof’s case, it was a crunching sliding tackle.
When Manchester United ended the transfer window with three new signings in the bag, the excitement and relief was palpable. This was Manchester United utilising a window to properly address their long-term weaknesses in the first team. A solid defensive midfielder to fill the void that Roy Keane’s acrimonious departure had left. An out-and-out number 9 to boost the goal tally and a center-half who could pass.
Lindelof was that center-half earmarked by Mourinho since January of last year when the club actively looked for opportunities to sign the Benfica defender. Testament to his importance to the Portuguese side, where he had by then established himself into a key member of the first team, Manchester United could only land him once the season had ended and, in the Swede, the club had recruited a defender who could play football and put thought into his every move on the ball. This had been absent in the side since the exit of Rio Ferdinand.
A nervous start for the Swede
However, the 23-year old did not have it all his way from the moment he walked out as a Manchester United defender. History tells us that, if anything, defenders struggle the hardest to adapt to the league and the club and there’s plenty of examples to prove that’s the case. Even the best have had to overcome the early bumps to make it at Manchester United—Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam, more recently Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, to name a few. Lindelof was no different.
His first notable nightmare came against Huddersfield Town which ended in a dismal defeat to the Terriers where the 23-year old was guilty of both the goals that the Red Devils conceded on a fateful evening in West Yorkshire. After slipping at the crucial moment for the first goal, Lindelof, to his horror, misjudged the flight of the ball which allowed Depoitre to ghost past him and score the crucial second which kept United at bay for the rest of the match. Almost like clockwork, his quality and commitment was questioned as to whether he would ever be ready for the rigours of playing in the Premier League—the most physically demanding top-flight competition in Europe.
A left off for Lindelof
But Jose Mourinho persevered with his new signing—the player he personally wanted to have at his club and so did Victor Lindelof himself.
The Swedish international would feature in the starting eleven three days after his clanger at Huddersfield, this time at Swansea City in the League Cup where United would complete a routine win to seal progression. Later in the following international break, the Swede would play a crucial role at the back and win a man of the match award in their successful knock-out blow to Italy in the World Cup Qualifiers.
From then on, Lindelof has grown from strength to strength at Old Trafford. A shaky start in a back two, alongside Chris Smalling, against Newcastle United was overshadowed by their clinical nature in front of goal.
But his story of redemption began in the same ground against another newly-promoted side—Brighton and Hove Albion. United won 1-0 on the day. Largely uninspiring but the shining light of that result was a particular instance in the match when the Swede went full pelt at Anthony Knockeart, tackled him as clean as it could possibly be done to come out with the ball on the other side. This drew a fiery response from the Old Trafford crowd in the process which would, in the end, prove to be vital for the home side to keep their focus intact. When asked about that very moment, Lindelof said:
“It think it was a good challenge. It was a 50/50 ball and I just thought I have to win this ball and I did. We are delighted with the clean sheet, we are always trying to do a good defensive job, and trying not to concede goals. We did do that today and that was very good for us.”
Suited to a back three?
However, away from Old Trafford is where the Swede has truly excelled with Mourinho opting for a back three which provides the 23-year old a bit more license to push forward with the ball. The Swedish international has impressed both with and without the ball in the middle of a back three flanked by Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo on either side. Over his 6 appearances (4 starts) in the Premier League, Lindelof has, unsurprisingly, managed to maintain the highest passing accuracy (around 90%) and made more blocks and key passes than any other United player bar Eric Bailly, who is currently injured.
Jose Mourinho—in an interview with MUTV—was asked about Lindelof’s recent upturn in form during his own press conference on Monday afternoon and the manager was relaxed about his signing’s performances. The manager explained:
“When the team plays well, he plays well. When the team doesn’t play well, he doesn’t play so well. So the mistakes he had in matches were not mistakes against the level of the team. When he made mistakes it was when the team was playing bad.”
The pressure is on for Lindelof
With the looming uncertainty around the fitness of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly, the fluctuating temperament of Marcos Rojo and the lack of consistency of Chris Smalling, the burden is beginning to shift towards ‘The Iceman’, Victor Lindelof, to provide the all-important calming influence and steady the ship at the back. This is why he will be key to shaping Manchester United’s December and—by extension—the rest of the season.