Can Victor Lindelof turn around his underwhelming start to life at Manchester United?
The Premier League can be an exciting yet daunting prospect all in one for a young player making the switch to England for the first time, and it is often never known if they will sink or if they will swim.
In the early days of Victor Lindelof’s Manchester United career it is perhaps the latter that applies more aptly, with the Swedish international getting a rude awakening during his opening months.
The £31 million centre-back arrived from Portuguese champions Benfica as a bit of an unknown identity, working his way through their youth ranks before becoming a first-team regular in the 2015-16 season.
It was a signing that was clearly masterminded by boss Jose Mourinho, with the 54-year-old using contacts back in his native Portugal to scout and sort out a permanent deal for Lindelof, and considering the fact that he’s only 23-years-old it can be assumed that he’s primarily a player for the future.
While he has enjoyed regular game time in the Champions League this season due to the relatively easy nature of United’s group, his full Premier League debut got off to the worst imaginable start.
After coming off the bench for a matter of seconds in the stalemate at Anfield the week before Lindelof was drafted into action inside the opening 25 minutes of the Premier League clash with new boys Huddersfield for his first proper league appearance after Phil Jones picked up an early injury.
What transpired was a nightmare afternoon for both Lindelof and United, with the 23-year-old directly at fault for Huddersfield’s second after misjudging the flight of a harmless ball over the top.
This – which came just minutes after missing a tackle in the build-up to the Terriers’ opener – compounded a miserable outing, and the Swede was heavily criticised from almost every angle.
The fact that such a dismal display came from his first taste of Premier League football immediately got him off on the wrong foot, and ever since that day it’s seemed that Lindelof is nervous and desperately trying hard not to make mistakes – but he overthinks it, and these errors seem to creep back in.
He was unfortunate to be at fault for another goal in the 4-1 win over Newcastle last week, slipping inside the area at the wrong time, but he was once again the prime scapegoat for an avoidable goal.
It is clear to see that the issue with Lindelof has been confidence; he’s impressed with his ability in possession, and his positioning is generally acute, but he can’t shake off feeling nervous at the back.
Whereas strikers can re-find their mojo by finding the back of the net, it’s a completely different story with defenders – what’s the equivalent of that for a player like Lindelof? Keeping clean sheets?
It is tough to say.
His struggles in the domestic game have been made more puzzling after his influential displays on the international scene of late, with Lindelof playing an integral role in the Sweden defence that ultimately overcame Italy in the World Cup play-offs and kept the ball out of their own net for over 120 minutes.
On those occasions he dealt excellently with Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, and Lorenzo Insigne, three players at the height of their game in Serie A, and all of a sudden he was displaying a sense of discipline.
But upon returning to club action he faltered once again, and frustration has grown amongst supporters.
With Eric Bailly and Phil Jones to return from injury soon, Marcos Rojo back in the fold and Chris Smalling and Axel Tuanzebe also in the squad, Lindelof needs to be careful not to fall far down the pecking order.
But one thing that has weighed in Lindelof’s favour in spite of his erroneous performances is that he firmly has the manager on side.
Jose Mourinho was the first person to absolve the youngster of the blame following the defeat at Huddersfield, saying in his post-match interview:
“I know you like that, I don’t know if it’s a correct word, the individualisation of the mistake and defeat. I think it’s very unfair, because the mistakes – him in the second goal and [Juan] Mata in the first goal – they are mistakes that belong to the context.
“If we play an amazing game and then you lose because of an individual mistake, yes you point the finger and we lost and deservedly lost because of an individual mistake, that is not the case.”
And for a manager like Mourinho, who has lately been notorious for blasting his players in the media, jumping to Lindelof’s defence so quickly shows that he knows the youngster’s confidence was at a new low.
It was an admirable attempt to take the heat off of him – as Mourinho knows all too well how the British press can impact a player – and it highlighted how prepared he is to be patient with Lindelof.
After all it was the Portuguese tactician who took the time to thoroughly scout Lindelof back in his native Portugal at Benfica, and it’d be foolish for him to suddenly cast him out after a few bad games.
Mourinho hasn’t been the only person to jump to Lindelof’s defence in recent weeks too, with Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs urging people to be patient and allow him to settle down.
“Some players come to the Premier League and bed in straight away and others can take six months or even a year, as it was for Patrice Evra, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic, and they went on to be unbelievable players.
“You win together and lose together and you can’t single out a player, especially when he hasn’t been playing regularly. He’s just got to knuckle down and come through this.”
Whilst Lindelof may have endured a stuttering start at Old Trafford it’s certainly not the end of the road for the young Swede by any stretch of the imagination, and as Giggs alluded to above he certainly isn’t the first player to arrive at a club like Manchester United and need time to acclimatise.
Neither Patrice Evra nor Nemanja Vidic were heroes from the beginning, with Evra in particular needing almost half a season to get into full flow, and Lindelof could prove to be an identical case.
It was during Saturday’s narrow victory against Brighton & Hove Albion that the youngster began to show signs that he might be starting to see the light down at the other end of the tunnel.
Making just his third Premier League start of the season in the absence of first-choice centre-backs Phil Jones and Eric Bailly he stuck to the task at hand diligently and arguably delivered his best performance in a Manchester United shirt, and this could prove to be a turning point in his career.
The Swede was alert from the first whistle, and there was one particularly crushing slide tackle on Anthony Knockaert that set the tone – and got a rapturous response from the Old Trafford faithful.
It was a challenge that sent a feeling of nostalgia around Salford Quays, with Lindelof’s intervention reminiscent of Vidic’s unforgettable sliding tackle on Kyle Walker during his rise to a cult hero status.
Whilst the nay-sayers will point out that it was ‘only’ against Brighton, a side that are still adjusting to life in the Premier League after their promotion, the calibre of opposition won’t matter to Lindelof.
Reflecting on his performance to MUTV, the Swede said:
” 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. I 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.”
The thing with football is that it’s a funny old game and the importance of momentum can never be underestimated, and moments like these are ones that can change the trajectory of an entire career.
His failures have perhaps been heightened by the impressive way in which the likes of Davinson Sanchez and Antonio Rudiger have both adapted to the Premier League for respective title-chasing sides.
Under a manager like Mourinho, who has made it clear already that he will give his centre-back time to settle in at Old Trafford, there is still every chance that he can be a quality player at this level.
Patience is a rarity in football, with the need for immediate results outweighing the desire to think long-term, but Lindelof looks to be in the perfect place at Manchester United to continue on his development.