The now famous Jose Mourinho wish list is finally underway, with Victor Lindelof becoming the first arrival at Old Trafford this summer. Although the name may come as a surprise to some, the fact United lacked goals and held the second best defensive record in the Premier League may bring a bigger surprise that the fist signing is a central defender. To be fair, most names coming from Portugal’s premier division will be fairly unknown to most football supporters across the country, but to Jose Mourinho this is a player he has scouted for some time and although not the most competitive league across Europe, he knows it better than most in order to make a well-educated judgement. Let’s not forget that Lindelof was expected to become a United player in January, but a combination of club politics at Benfica and an impressive partnership of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo resulted in the move not materialising.
Maybe the biggest compliment to Lindelof is that Jose has had another 6 months to re-stock, re-assess his current squad, re-evaluate other potential options such as Virgil Van Dijk and Michael Keane who have both been rumoured to be on the list of potential signings and it would be easy to opt for a “bigger” name such as Raphael Varane, yet Lindelof has remained top of his list.
Almost a year ago to the day, Eric Bailly became a £30 million player, when he was also a fairly unknown quantity, but he has proven to be a shrewd bit of business and completed a successful first season with United. The fact that many questioned Bailly’s transfer has maybe helped with reduced surprise when it comes to Lindelof’s arrival. What does remain is to see if he will be as successful as Bailly has proved to be, and here I look at what his arrival could potentially bring to United next season.
What attributes does he bring?
What was obvious from last season is Bailly likes a challenge, likes to get a foot in and although not bad on the ball, would probably be put in the category of a no nonsense centre half. Lindelof will bring a a little different to the United defence, at 6ft 2 he possesses a typical centre half physique and although not as quick as Bailly, is no slouch across the ground. But his biggest attribute which should complement Bailly perfectly, is his ability with the ball, he is composed and more relaxed and happy to bring the ball out from the back with decent distribution. The potential partnership, quite rightly has been compared to the magnificent Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic partnership, something United have been trying to replicate for some time and it is easy to see the comparison of Bailly as the Vidic replacement and Lindelof more in the Ferdinand mode. If they can emulate even half of the talent and success then I think United fans will be happy.
Daley Blind is currently the only United centre half who can offer decent ability on the ball, but he is not a natural centre half as he relies on his game reading abilities to make up for what he lacks in height and pace, with Jose only turning to him during the latter part of the season when the injuries at the back started to mount up. Blind does give United a little extra in possession, but now Lindelof can do something similar and also bring a more natural centre half presence with it, this can only be a bonus to United next season.
What does his arrival mean for the current squad?
As with most signings the focus switches to which played will be sold. With United, Lindelof will take them up to 5, out and out senior centre halves, add to that the flexibility of Blind and the maturing Axel Tuanzebe, it makes sense to presume one of these will go out the Old Trafford door and more than likely one of the senior 5 will.
Rojo will be out of action until well into the new year so that rules him out but his performances since January have been at a good level, coupled with his flexibility to function at left full back means he has good reason to stay as part of the squad. Bailly obviously won’t be sold which leaves a tussle between the injury prone twins of Jones and Chris ‘Mike’ Smalling. Ironically, this is the partnership Sir Alex probably envisaged being the long-term centre back pairing during his reign but due to injuries and lack of consistent opportunities at centre back has stunted their development. The Smalling of 2015/16 would definitely stay but some of his performances last season were not of the same standard, and Jones was impressive in his performances partnering Rojo. Once you factor in Jose’s public comments about Mike’s commitment, you would guess Jones may be winning the 2 horse race currently. What could save anyone leaving however, is the injury crisis that hit the squad towards the end of last season. As mentioned Rojo is already out until the new year and Smalling and Jones carry a questionable injury record so will Jose want to leave him self in the same position of lack of numbers at the back? The likeliest scenario remains that one will leave but don’t be surprised if this isn’t until January as Rojo closes on a return.
Any tactical change?
The potential partnership with Bailly is something United can look forward to with some optimism. It is widely expected that he will simply slot into a back 4 alongside Bailly with the very impressive Antonio Valencia at right back. The only question is who will make the left back slot their own.
Lindelof’s ability to step out of the defence with the ball will see a difference in United’s attacking dimension also. Too many times the deeper of the United midfield was slotting into the back 4 in order to pick the ball up, resulting in a the whole team to drop deeper in order to keep possession. With a ball playing centre half, the deep lying playmaker role is made that bit easier, with the likes of Herrera, Pogba and Carrick receiving the ball that much higher up the pitch resulting in more dangerous areas from which to hurt the opposition. You may see Pogba and the wide players being a lot more advanced than they have been at times this season which can only produce positive results from an attacking point of view.
There are other possibilities Lindelof could bring. Jose did flirt with a change to back 3 at times last season but was somewhat limited in numbers and styles. In a 3, it is imperative there is ability to play with the football, Chelsea have David Luiz with Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta possessing some ability also, and the spurs back 3 all carry good ability on the ball. With Lindelof added to Bailly and one other, this could now be a decent option if Mourinho wanted to go down this route. We know he loves a tactical battle in certain games and this provides him some flexibility, in a game where 3 at the back is now more common than ever and will probably continue to grow in popularity.
Will he be successful?
This is impossible to answer for any player coming to the premier league as it is such a different animal to other leagues across Europe. We have seen better players than Lindelof fail to justify their fee but the ability is there with the added bonus of potential to improve and there is arguably no better manager to maximise this. There will always be sceptics on the fee for a fairly unknown quantity, but after reading something this week on Twitter, it puts this deal into perspective. United have spent £60 million on 2 centre halves over the past year, that is only £10 million more than what Man City paid for John Stones alone and there is no competition to who was the better defender last season between Stones and Bailly. I think this is a good bit of business that could turn into excellent business. United now have some young and talented centre backs at their disposal with a manager who is brilliant at improving defensive ability. A look at some of the prices being slapped on other players £30 million is looking like the norm, but by not splashing double this on another defender, Jose still has money to spend on improving the attacking side of United’s game, which remains the focus of this transfer window.