Premier League

World Cup proves Lindelöf can be United’s rock at the back

 • by Matt Gault
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Victor Lindelöf had plenty of reasons to feel trepidatious about the World Cup.

The centre-back had just completed a shaky debut season with Manchester United, one in which he struggled to justify the £30million fee the Red Devils forked out to sign him from Benfica.

A look at Sweden’s opponents in Russia – Germany, Mexico and South Korea – wouldn’t have offered much comfort. Lindelöf, however, rose to the challenge in a manner that suggested brighter days lie ahead at Old Trafford.

Shaky start

It’s true that Lindelöf was an embattled figure in his first year in England, resembling a lost and scared soul inside the Theatre of Dreams.

Unfortunately, teething problems were clear to see from the outset. Lindelöf failed to impress during United’s pre-season endeavours last summer, and was culpable for Real Madrid‘s second goal in the 2-1 UEFA Super Cup defeat to Los Blancos in August.

From there, José Mourinho opted to start Lindelöf in the Champions League but made the young Swede wait for his introduction to the Premier League.

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There are certainly more intimidating grounds than Huddersfield Town’s John Smith’s Stadium but Lindelöf won’t return to West Yorkshire in a hurry.

Before facing the Terriers, Lindelöf’s Premier League career consisted of replacing Ashley Young as a 93rd-minute substitute in a 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield.

He did not expect to see much more action against Huddersfield but an injury to Phil Jones meant he replaced the England international after 23 minutes.

Eight minutes later, Tom Ince was ghosting past Lindelöf in the build-up to Huddersfield’s opener. Five minutes after that, his nerves shot, Lindelöf misjudged a routine defensive header, allowing Laurent Depoitre to steal in and finish United off.

That harrowing baptism of fire stayed with Lindelöf. His performances got progressively steadier as the season wore on but, as United wrapped up for the summer, question marks remained.

Redemption in Russia

Admirably, though, while some of United’s players lay on beaches, Lindelöf redeemed himself in Russia.

Partnering the vastly-experienced Andreas Granqvist, Lindelöf showed composure, positional nous and bravery as Sweden topped Group F and saw off Switzerland in the last-16 before their campaign became unstuck against England.

But Mourinho, who kept a close eye on his United players at the World Cup from the comfort of Russia Today’s studio, would have been pleased with Lindelöf’s contributions.

Benched for Sweden’s opening win over South Korea, Lindelöf replaced Pontus Jansson for the meeting with Germany. Although Sweden ultimately lost to a stunning, last-gasp free-kick from the right boot of Toni Kroos, Lindelöf’s mature performance at the heart of the Swedish defence caught the eye.

The enthusiastic lieutenant to Granqvist’s grizzled stalwart, Lindelöf carried his momentum over into group decider against Mexico, proving an immovable object in the face of El Tri’s clever, nimble-footed attack.

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Lindelöf helped Sweden to a clean sheet and a 3-0 win, winning 100 per cent of his tackles, making seven clearances and winning two aerial battles. What stood out in the win over Mexico, however, was Lindelöf’s leadership and intelligence.

No longer haunted by Huddersfield, his decision-making was flawless and he was again influential as Sweden edged past Switzerland to reach the last eight for the first time since 1994.

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Build on newfound confidence

And while it ended in heartache against England, Lindelöf will report back to United refreshed after a much-needed rest and rejuvenated after recapturing the confidence that established him as one of the hottest defensive properties on the European market before the Red Devils pounced.

Recent Manchester United transfer rumours have indicated that Mourinho has prioritised signing a central defender. The club have long been heavily linked with a move for Tottenham Hotspur and Belgium centre-back  Toby Alderweireld, while surprising reports earlier in July claimed Mourinho is interested in pursuing AC Milan’s Leonardo Bonucci.

The Portuguese coach’s dream target is believed to be Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane, who has been magnificent for France at the World Cup, but the general feeling is that it would be almost impossible to prise the 25-year-old away from the Spanish capital.

Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones remain decent squad options for Mourinho but the popular perception is that all three fall just short of leading a back-line that will help United challenge Manchester City’s Premier League supremacy.

Having bolstered his midfield with Fred and added promising Portuguese right-back Diogo Dalot as Antonio Valencia’s understudy, Mourinho will most likely strengthen his options at the heart of United’s defence.

Alderweireld seems a realistic arrival but the Belgian will be 30 in March. While he would undoubtedly shore up things at the back, the World Cup has proved that Lindelöf should be the long-term project for Mourinho.

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