Manchester United made a triumphant return to the Premier League on Saturday with a commanding 4-1 victory over Newcastle United in front of a bouncing Old Trafford. All the pre-match talk focused on what part, if any, the returning Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would play, following Jose Mourinho’s admission the previous day that the pair, along with Marcos Rojo, would all be included in the matchday squad.
As it turned out, Pogba was handed a starting berth in the middle of the park alongside Nemanja Matic and ran the show for the hosts, before being replaced by Marouane Fellaini with 20 minutes remaining, whilst Ibrahimovic made his much-awaited return to a rousing reception for the final quarter of an hour.
However, it was the inclusion of another name in the starting XI that caught many by surprise. With first-choice centre-back pairing Phil Jones and Eric Bailly both unavailable through injury, Mourinho handed summer signing Victor Lindelof his first Premier League start since joining from Benfica during the summer. The 23-year-old has made an underwhelming start to life at Old Trafford, putting in a number of shaky defensive displays when called upon and this trend continued on Saturday.
Inside the first quarter of an hour, with the sides still goalless, Lindelof slipped at the vital moment inside his own area, allowing a seemingly harmless DeAndre Yedlin shot to reach Dwight Gayle who duly guided the ball past David de Gea and hand Newcastle a shock lead. Whilst the Sweden international had a couple of other hairy moments during the first half, he also showed glimpses of what he is capable of, by looking tidy in possession and at one point, surging into the opposition half before dinking a delightful ball over the visitors’ defence and onto the head of Romelu Lukaku, who perhaps should have done better with the opportunity.
Whilst, on the one hand, it is somewhat understandable for United fans to expect more from a player that cost the club £31 million back in June, it is unacceptable to deem the Swede a flop, or suggest United should cut their losses and sell him, just over three months into the new campaign. Shortly after making his debut for the club during the Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid at the start of August, Mourinho was quick to point out that Lindelof will need time to settle down and get used to a new club, league and environment, comparing the Swede’s situation to that of one of his former charges, Ricardo Carvalho.
“In 2004 I bought a phenomenal central defender to England, Ricardo Carvalho,” the Portuguese coach told Sky Sports after United’s opening-day win over West Ham United. “He was one of the best central defenders in the last decade in the Premier League. “But he struggled and it was difficult for him to come and adapt in the beginning. Victor needs a little bit of time and he is going to have that time. Let’s go step by step because Victor is a fantastic player.”
At the moment, Lindelof faces a fight to break into the United first-team, largely down to the fact that Bailly and Jones have forged a solid partnership in front of de Gea, with Smalling seemingly preferred to the Swede, for now. However, the fact that this trio of centre-backs is in such good form should be seen as a blessing for the 23-year-old, as it will allow him to acclimatise himself to his new surroundings at his own pace, without the pressure of being thrown into the starting XI on a weekly basis.
Nicknamed the ‘Iceman’ during his time at Benfica due to his ability to stay cool under pressure, Lindelof is held in high regard back in Portugal and there is little doubt in my mind that he will prove to be a major success at Old Trafford and establish himself as first-choice centre-back alongside Bailly. After all, the Swede has been in this situation before. He signed for Benfica as a highly-rated, raw 17-year-old back in 2011 and had to wait patiently for a run in the first-team.
Once that chance arrived, back in January 2016, Lindelof became indispensable to the Portuguese outfit, excelling in their UEFA Champions League run before being named in the Sweden squad for the 2016 European Championships in France, where he played in every minute of their three group stage matches.
United have a hectic fixture schedule between now and the end of the festive period as they challenge for silverware on all fronts, meaning that every member of the squad will be of utmost importance.
There is no doubt that Lindelof will be handed plenty of opportunities to stake his claim for a place in the starting line-up and it would not be beyond the Sweden international to end the season looking like a £31 million bargain, rather than an expensive flop.