The Renaissance of Victor Lindelof

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Over the summer, Manchester United paid a transfer fee of about £30 million to Benfica to acquire defender Victor Lindelof. Early reaction to the move was positive, and most experts thought that the signing could become quite the coup for United. The Swedish centre-back was already a starter for club and country at the young age of 23. He had already won 3 Portuguese league titles, and was a part of the Swedish team that won the U-21 European Championship in 2015.

As Lindelof came to United relatively young, Mourinho made to sure to carefully bring him into the first team. He was a mainstay of United’s preseason tour to America, and started in the win over rivals Manchester City.

These performances, coupled with the suspensions of Bailly and Jones, lead to Lindelof starting in the UEFA Super Cup match against Real Madrid. It was a stern test against the reigning Champions League winners, and it proved to be a test too difficult too soon for the Swede. He looked a bit lost as Madrid piled on the pressure with their world class attacking talents and ran out 2-1 winners. It was the last action Lindelof would see for United until the Champions League began a month later. Mourinho decided to give Lindelof starts in cup competitions, like the Champions League and the Carabao Cup, while starting his more experienced defenders in the Premier League.

Lindelof showcased his talents in the Champions League, a competition that suited him well. He competed in the tournament the season before with Benfica, and the technical European play-style fit him better than the raw speed and physical play of the English game. His technical skill on the ball helped United build possession out of the back, and he played an instrumental part in United winning all 3 games while only conceding once early on in the tournament. It hadn’t hurt that one of the games was away to Benfica, in a stadium that the Swede knew well against a team he knew even better.

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However, things went sour fast as Lindelof was thrown into the deep depths of the Premier League sooner than expected, as Phil Jones was forced to come off injured away to Huddersfield Town. The Swede had no time to get into the flow of the game, as Mata lost the ball in the midfield minutes after the defender had come on. Lindelof found himself spun in circles trying to defend the Huddersfield counter attack, and could not do anything when De Gea’s initial save rebounded to Aaron Mooy, who smashed it home.

The day would only get worse for Lindelof. Soon after the first goal, Huddersfield keeper Lossl smashed a goal kick forward. It should’ve been a routine clearance for the United defender, but he inexplicably let the ball bounce right past him. His mistake put Huddersfield striker Depoitre through on goal, and he made no mistake by rounding De Gea and tapping it into the empty net. Lindelof had only been on the pitch for 10 minutes and had already conceded twice. A late goal from Rashford meant little, as United ended up losing 2-1, and the Swede was made the scapegoat for the loss.

He was given the start in United’s next match, but only since it was in the Carabao Cup against Swansea. Mourinho left Lindelof out of the lineup in Manchester’s crucial Champions League match at home against Benfica, and it must’ve killed the defender to miss out on the chance to play against his former club yet again. He also was left off the matchday 18 in Premier League contests against Chelsea and Tottenham.

Many fans complain about the international break, as players tend to get hurt or suffer in drops of form. For Lindelof, however, a recent international break was the catalyst for the defender’s revival.

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Lindelof was a starter throughout Sweden’s qualification for the World Cup, and helped the team to a massive home win against win against France earlier in the year. However, the result was not enough in the end as Sweden finished the group in 2nd place, sending them to the playoffs. Hope seemed lost for the Scandinavian country when they were drawn against world powerhouse Italy. The Italians were solid throughout qualifying, and were only in the playoffs since they were drawn into the same group as Spain. There was such confidence that Italy would be advancing to the World Cup that manager Gian Piero Ventura told the media that he is already thinking of the group stage of next summer’s tournament.

However, that statement would quickly go down in infamy due to the defensive masterclass put on by Lindelof and the rest of the Swedish defence. For 180 minutes, the United man shut down an Italian attack that included the likes of Immobile, Belotti, Insigne, and many other Serie A stars. This success was due to how deep the Swedish defensive line was, playing to the strengths of Lindelof. Since there was no space in behind, he did not have to worry about being outpaced by the faster Italians. He could focus on heading the ball away, and clearing anything that fell to his feet without any problem. At the end of the second leg, Lindelof was able to celebrate with his teammates as they booked their spots to the 2018 World Cup. There is no doubt that Lindelof’s confidence has skyrocketed since the playoffs, and that has lead to a clear difference in the his play.

He was rewarded with a start in United’s first game after the break, a Premier League match against Newcastle at Old Trafford. It started poorly as an ill timed slip from the defender allowed Gayle to open the scoring for Newcastle. Lindelof responded well, and helped United to a 4-1 comeback victory, completing 95% of his passes on the day. He was benched for the next match, a Champions League fixture away to Basel that United lost 1-0.

He returned back into the side for the next game as United hosted Brighton in a must win league match. After a frustrating first half, the Old Trafford faithful were getting testy, afraid that they’d see their team drop home points yet again. United hadn’t created much offensively, and were waiting for a moment to bring them into life. Few would’ve expected that moment to come from a defender, but that’s exactly what happened 10 minutes into the second half.

A loose ball rolled into midfield, and Brighton star Anthony Knockaert raced after it. However, he was beaten to it by Lindelof, who made a sliding tackle to win the ball and take the winger off of his feet. The Old Trafford crowd roared to its feet in delight of the challenge as the defender picked the ball up and played it forward. United begun to pile pressure going forward, and eventually grabbed the winning goal. As a result of his performance, Lindelof was awarded the man of the match award after the game.

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He rode his momentum into the next match, as United travelled to face Watford. Vicarage Road has been a tough away ground for many Premier League sides, and United came into the game needed a win to continue to pressure Man City atop the league table. The pressure did not phase Lindelof, as he put in his best performance in a United shirt. He stifled Watford winger Richarlison all game, which was no easy task considering the Brazilian had been involved in 8 goals this season. Wherever he went, Lindelof followed. Richarlison was unable to create anything as he was immediately hounded by the Swede anytime he got on the ball. Lindelof could not do anything about the first Watford goal, as Rojo was the player to give away the penalty that Deeney converted. Watford added a second, and Lindelof was forced into some key interceptions before Lingard put the game to bed with a late goal to make it 4-2.

It is not often a defender is the one praised after a game in which 6 goals were scored, but Mourinho made sure to publicly credit Lindelof on his performance. In an interview with MUTV after the match, Mourinho said, “I think Richarlison is a very good player and a difficult player to play against but Victor is very fast. He has adapted to play centrally but also to go to the sides because he’s got the agility that many of the central defenders don’t have.” He concluded the conversation with a short and simple sentence to sum up the play of Lindelof. “I think it was another very positive performance by Victor.”

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All things considered, Lindelof still has not cemented his role in United’s starting XI. Eric Bailly, who was the star defender last season, has been out injured since early November. Phil Jones made a blistering start to this seasons campaign, and will soon be returning from an injury he picked up on international duty. Marcos Rojo has recently returned from an injury of his own, and is most certainly raring to improve on his promising performances from last season.

However, if Lindelof continues to perform the way he has in recent weeks, then Mourinho will have no other option than to make him the starting center back for not only the present, but the future as well.

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