Victor Lindelof reinforced his growing status at Manchester United with his late leveller against Burnley. Ahead of the Super Sunday clash with Leicester, Nick Wright examines how a £31m misfit became a key player.
It feels like a long time ago now that Victor Lindelof endured his chastening introduction to the Premier League in October 2017. The Swede, a £31m signing from Benfica a few months earlier, had been thrown on to replace the injured Phil Jones at a rainy John Smith’s Stadium. Within 10 minutes, he had committed two glaring errors leading to Huddersfield goals.
Manchester United did not recover, going on to suffer their first loss to the Terriers in 65 years, and it was tempting to wonder whether Lindelof would either. The highly-rated defender was supposed to become a key pillar in Jose Mourinho’s new-look defence. Instead, on only his sixth appearance in three months, he looked ill-prepared and out of his depth.
That miserable afternoon in West Yorkshire set the tone for a difficult first season. Lindelof was unable to nail down a starting spot, and when he did play, it did not help that he flitted between right-back and centre-back. When Mourinho spent the following summer pushing for another new central defender, Lindelof’s prospects looked uncertain.
Mourinho was dismayed by United’s eventual refusal to sanction a new signing. But it has worked out perfectly for Lindelof. Fourteen months on from that error-strewn afternoon at the John Smith’s Stadium, he has quietly established himself as United’s most important centre-back.
It started in the first half of the season, when Lindelof was one of only a handful of United players to feature consistently under Mourinho, and he is now their only outfield player to have played every Premier League minute under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His vital equaliser against Burnley on Tuesday reflected his growing importance to the team.
It took Lindelof longer to get to this point than many might have hoped. But it should be remembered that he is not the first United centre-back to have found the adjustment difficult. Most famously, Nemanja Vidic endured a torrid start. His disastrous debut against Manchester City in 2006 prompting many to wonder whether he was up to it.
Vidic was not helped by the timing of his arrival – he joined United midway through the 2005/06 season having just had the winter off at Spartak Moscow – and the circumstances were difficult for Lindelof too. The Swede was only 22 when he signed. And only had a season-and-a-half of first-team experience under his belt.
The scale of the step up was somewhat lost in the excitement surrounding the expenditure. But in hindsight, it was unrealistic to expect him to walk straight into a dysfunctional United team and immediately improve it.
Lindelof needed time, and while he knows he would do well to emulate even a fraction of Vidic’s eventual success at Old Trafford. It seems he is already living by the Serb’s mantra. “After six months in England,” Vidic said in a recent interview, “I realised the only way to adapt is to work hard.”
Lindelof, remembered by his old youth coaches for his maturity and determination to better himself, has been rewarded for showing that same attitude at United. He described his first six months in England as “so, so tough”. But his belief never wavered. “I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I just trying to do my best every day, work hard and improve.”
The focus of the hard work has been on toughening up physically. Lindelof has always been technically proficient and tactically intelligent. But the switch to the Premier League underlined the need to be stronger. And the improvement this season has been obvious. The Swede is no longer dominated by opposition strikers and the statistics prove it.
According to Opta, he is winning 4.4 duels per 90 minutes this season compared to 3.6 last season. With his success rate jumping from 55 per cent to 63 per cent. Even more strikingly, his aerial duel success rate has jumped from 47 per cent to 59 per cent.
Lindelof’s physical improvement delighted Mourinho. Who described him as a “fantastic example” to the rest of his squad. That’s when he played with an injury against Crystal Palace in November. And it has been apparent under Solskjaer, too. He impressed against Harry Kane in the recent win over Spurs. And was instrumental in repelling Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last week.
United are now a stronger team with him in it. Intriguingly, the stats suggest that might even have been the case last season, too. Since his arrival from Benfica, United boast an overall win rate of 66 per cent with him in the team compared to 56 per cent without him.
Those numbers are not definitive, of course. But what’s certain is that Lindelof is now benefitting from stability. He played with various centre-back partners and in various defensive systems under Mourinho. But Solskjaer has settled on a back four. With Lindelof starting alongside Jones in six of their last seven Premier League games.
It’s David De Gea who has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. His saves against Tottenham earning widespread acclaim. But it was telling where the goalkeeper shifted the praise this week.
“I think the form of Jones and Lindelof is absolutely vital for the team,” he said. “They’ve enjoyed some excellent form and been very, very good. I think as they continue to play together they get to know each other and each other’s style of play even more.”
Eric Bailly’s return from suspension will increase the competition in that defence. So too might United’s anticipated pursuit of another centre-back in the summer transfer window. But Lindelof’s place in the team no longer looks at risk. A Manchester United career which began in nightmarish circumstances now promises a far brighter future.