With the Premier League heading towards the final stages of the season, despite ongoing uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, Manchester United look set for another busy window in the transfer market.
One piece of business they could conduct is recruiting a new centre-back, amid concerns over Victor Lindelof and his somewhat shaky form over the course of the season.
Lindelof signed with United in 2017 under Jose Mourinho and has enjoyed a mixed bag of success after an initially difficult start to life at Old Trafford. However, that hasn’t held him back, with the Sweden international having made 104 appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils thus far.
Despite missing just three Premier League games so far this season, there are still reservations about his role in the squad. However, if given time to properly gel with new signing Harry Maguire – who became the most expensive defender in the world last summer – Victor Lindelof can prove to United that he is actually a vital asset to the starting XI.
So, where has the doubt crept in over Lindelof?
After an initially rocky start in Manchester, with Eric Bailly being the preferred option, Lindelof has slowly become the mainstay in the XI while Bailly has spent most of his time on the shelf with injuries.
In the 2018/19 campaign, Lindelof asserted himself as United’s best centre-back option. He was the leader in the defence making 30 league appearances, and finished the Premier League campaign with no errors leading to goals, a 68% tackle success rate and just one yellow card. He thrived as confidence was put in him to be the number one centre-back.
However, the signing of Maguire seemed to have unnerved Lindelof, who endured a disappointing start to the 2019/20 campaign. He was beaten in the air for Crystal Palace’s first goal when they wound up 2-1 winners at Old Trafford in August, and the same happened again when he was completely out-jumped by Jannik Vestergaard as Southampton held United to a 1-1 draw the following month.
It’s an obvious issue that needs addressing; as much as Lindelof likes to command play from the floor, a core weakness is his aerial abilities which has proved costly a number of times now. The fact that Maguire is so aerially sound doesn’t help his cause, either. Errors in the air as a centre-back aren’t acceptable, and Lindelof must address this.
However, what he lacks in strength and aerial ability, he makes up for with a proficient reading of the game. So far, Lindelof is yet to be dribbled past this season, which is an impressive stat to hold (remember that Van Dijk streak? Yeah).
Lindelof has also made it known that he likes a solid tackle, impressing United fans with his hardened mentality. The Swede is intelligent, too, and knows when to make that slide challenge and when not to. This season, he’s made 170 recoveries and won 103 duels in the Premier League, which is testament to his reading of the game.
Although Maguire is way out in front, boasting 190 recoveries and 192 duels won, as well as 53 interceptions compared to Lindelof’s 19, it would be unfair to entirely write him off based on this. Together, they create some solid stats, which has resulted in Manchester United conceding just 30 Premier League goals this season, the third least in the league behind only Sheffield United (25) and Liverpool (21).
His stats and the way he has fought tooth and nail for his spot at Manchester United since 2017 haven’t gone unnoticed, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t completely naive to the fact that Lindelof is a very capable defender, hence him signing a new deal in September 2019.
So, what’s disrupted Lindelof, and how do Manchester United fix it?
Maguire and Lindelof has been the go-to pairing this season for the Red Devils, even if that is because Eric Bailly and Phil Jones have been injured all the time – to absolutely nobody’s surprise. Good centre-back partnerships develop over time and when you analyse how both Maguire and Lindelof play their game, they compliment each other well, which is why Lindelof’s performances since the turn of the New Year seem to have improved.
It seems as though Lindelof initially struggled with not being the leader at the back anymore. The signing of Harry Maguire seemed to throw him off the pace at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, perhaps because he had felt threatened.
While it is said that the best players will thrive off such a challenge, this simply isn’t always true. It’s evident that Lindelof is a big confidence player, and needs trust and faith instilled in him. Now he and Maguire are getting familiar with one another at the back, the two should be able to form a more than competent pairing. And with Lindelof aged 25 and Maguire 27, the two could be heading into their best years as a duo.
Manchester United simply need to be resilient and put their faith in their Swedish hard man, and in time they will reap the rewards.