Picture the scene. Thursday, 17 December, 2015. Chelsea’s annual Christmas lunch at the club’s Cobham training ground has just concluded. The mood is downbeat. The Blues had lost 2-1 at Leicester City the previous Monday to record a ninth Premier League defeat of the season. José Mourinho’s low-key pre-lunch training session does little to lighten the atmosphere. The manager is sporting a newly shaven head and the stubble of a man too distracted to shave. As the players drift home, chairman Bruce Buck and director Eugene Tenenbaum arrived to sack Mourinho as Chelsea manager for the second time. A brutal assasination.
Some of Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid, after accusations of tax fraud unsettled the superstar. Few enjoy the tedium of a summer transfer saga, it creates uncertainly, and United fans have been offered false hope too often in recent years. Some fans cling to the bdlief that Ronaldo will once again grace Old Trafford; plenty felt an anxious twang of déjà vu this week.
“This guy’s done nothing, absolutely nothing”, raged Ray Wilkins, lambasting Manchester United’s decision to sign a Swedish international who, at 22 years old, has more honours to his name than “Butch” amassed in his entire career. According to Wilkins, José Mourinho would have been better served by courting the services of Michael Keane, a player sold by United in 2015. The 24-year-old enjoyed an impressive campaign for Burnley last season but – much to Wilkins’ chagrin – United plumped instead to acquire the highly-rated Lindelöf for a fee of more than £30 million.
Wilkins’ scepticism of foreign imports is not a new phenomenon among some pundits, although Ray Parlour and the two Sky presenters seemed to squirm uncomfortably as he bemoaned United’s apparent ignorance of home-grown talent. In truth, Lindelöf has an impressive pedigree both for club and country, arriving from SL Benfica – a club synonymous with success in Portugal. He comes to Old Trafford much in the same way as Eric Bailly – much admired on the continent, but with little to no profile in England. Reds’ fans will hope that Mourinho has managed to unearth another defensive gem, much like he did with the Ivorian.
"Lindelöf has an impressive pedigree both for club and country. He comes to Old Trafford much admired on the continent, but with little to no profile in England."
Born on 17 July 1994, Lindelöf joined his local side Vasteras SK in 2010, helping the team gain promotion in his first season. Attracting attention from continental Europe, Lindelöf made the switch to Benfica just over a year later where he initially plied his trade with the club’s U-19 squad, winning the league title in 2013. Lindelöf’s performances earned him a first team début later that same year, completing 90 minutes in a Portuguese Cup victory over CD Cinfaes. Despite a taste of top-flight football, the young Swede was made to wait before becoming a regular fixture in the senior side.
He made just under 100 appearances for both the Benfica youth and ‘B’ teams before becoming a fully fledged member of Jorgé Jesus’ side – making his league debut in a late season defeat to FC Porto in May 2014. Lindelöf took a place in the first-team squad at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, making 23 appearances and scoring once, however his campaign was hindered by injury problems that prevented him staking a regular claim.
It was at the beginning of last season that the imposing centre-back began to make his mark. Registering a joint second highest number of appearances with 47, Lindelöf was ever-present in an historic season for Aguias as the team swept to a record 36th league title, while also capturing the Portuguese Cup and Super Cup. He was named in the 2016 UEFA Champions League Breakthrough XI.
The young defender has also established himself at international level, representing Sweden from U-17 level through to being awarded a senior bow in 2016. In 2015, Lindelöf helped his U-21 teammates to a first-ever European Championship trophy, scoring the winning penalty as the Swedes overcame Portugal via a shoot-out in the final. The defender was also honoured with a place in UEFA’s team of the tournament.
Standing at 6’2″ and possessing an imposing frame, Lindelöf certainly looks every inch the traditional centre-back – not least when his now short dark hair was shaven. But on the pitch, he is very much the idealists image of a modern defender. Aggressive, quick across the ground and with a knack for reading the game at vital moments, Lindelöf combines these fundamental defensive traits with composure, tidy feet and an eye for a pass. His technical prowess and all-round mobility allows him to deputise at right-back, as he did for Sweden’s U-21 Euro winning side.
On a purely statistical level, Lindelöf falls short of United’s existing centre-back options on number of tackles made and clearances per game, but this must be balanced against the fact that Benfica is a much more dominant outfit in Portugal than United is in England. The Portuguese champions conceded only 18 goals in 34 league games, losing just twice.
Lindelöf’s most crucial quality for United could be his ability on the ball. In Eric Bailly, Mourinho has his defensive destroyer, but he does not have a foil in the shape of someone more adept with the ball at his feet. Lindelöf averaged more than 60 passes per game at 90 per cent accuracy last season, and has shown the ability to cut through the lines into attacking areas. Some defenders enjoy a high pass completion by virtue of playing the ball side to side or short into midfield. Lindelöf has the ability and confidence to be a real asset to United on the ball in a creative sense, which is more than can be said of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
"Lindelöf has the ability and confidence to be a real asset to United on the ball in a creative sense, which is more than can be said of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones"
The real test for the young centre-back will be to step up to the kind of level expected at United. More experienced players have been unable to fill the jersey, and although the team is perhaps not the behemoth it once was, the pressure to succeed has not dissipated. Lindelöf’s time at Portugal’s most successful club should prepare him well for making the jump.
Making a strong first impression will also be key to his success. The nation’s media revel in piling pressure on foreign players who do not immediately excel in the much-hyped Premier League, and fans will hope that Lindelöf avoids falling into this trap. That is not to say that Ray Wilkins’ ramblings about Keane and his solitary year of Premier League experience holds any weight; pundits love to overstate the importance of “knowing the league”. There are plenty of players who know the league inside-out but it does not necessarily make them better footballers.
After all, Eric Bailly stepped into the United side from Villarreal last season and adapted with little fuss, and Lindelöf appears to possess a temperament and assuredness that will aid in his transition. Nicknamed “Iceman” by Benfica fans due to his immense composure, his goal must be to provide the kind of class at the back that has been missing since Rio Ferdinand’s departure. At 22, Lindelöf has time to grow into the role further and if he clicks with Bailly, the heart of United’s defence could be in good hands for years to come.
Perhaps, in private, José Mourinho will admit that Manchester United’s performance at Arsenal last Sunday was one of relentless mediocrity. In public, of course, he said something very different, defending his players and bemoaning a heavy schedule. Yet, United remained competitive against Arsenal for no more than 15 minutes at the Emirates. Then the home side took charge, with two quick goals securing the points for a beleaguered Arsene Wenger. It was a performance that should stimulate plenty of scrutiny about the manager’s approach this season – not least in his management of a squad that contains a mix of players too shattered to be effective and those too rusty to impress.
From the dark days of three consecutive September defeats, to an unbeaten run few thought was possible, Manchester United’s big game manager is in full Mourinho Mode. Unforgiving, unrelenting and, now, unhindered by a rigid philosophy or game-plan, fighting on two fronts to reach next season’s Champions League.
It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.