Victor Lindelöf has made just two Premier League appearances for Manchester United since signing in the summer from Benfica in a £31million deal, and the Swede has cut a nervous figure to date for the Red Devils.
Most notably, he came on as a first-half substitute for the injured Phil Jones in United’s shock 2-1 loss to Huddersfield Town at John Smith’s Stadium in October and contributed heavily to the 20-time champions’ downfall, making costly errors in the lead-up to both goals conceded.
Since the Huddersfield loss, the 23-year-old centre-back’s only first-team outing came in the League Cup win away at Swansea City, looking perceptibly more assured in his role as he appeared to pick up confidence.
Over the most recent international break, in which he started twice for Sweden in their World Cup qualification play-off triumph over Italy, Lindelöf played all 180 minutes of the two-legged tie and shone as the Swede’s upset their opponents with an inspiring rearguard display.
Lindelöf’s performances against the Azzurri gave United fans a glimpse of his true quality, seldom seen since his expensive summer switch to Old Trafford.
Italy have been criticised for their lack of imagination and inability to create enough clear-cut chances to see off Sweden over two legs, and especially in the second future at the San Siro, but the men in yellow deserve huge credit for their defensive effort.
At the heart of the Swedish resistance was Lindelöf. The former Benfica defender’s reputation around Europe as being one of the continent’s most stylish and technically gifted ball-playing centre-backs was forged through his wonderful range of passing and composure on the ball. But against Italy he showed he can cope with the grittier, more physical side of his role too.
Across both legs against Gian Piero Ventura’s limp Italian outfit, Lindelöf made 15 clearances and two interceptions, which, as the above graphic shows, is more than he has managed in Premier League action to date.
He also showed outstanding communication skills in helping marshal the backline alongside Andreas Granqvist, something that cannot be reflected in stats but will have surely impressed José Mourinho considering the defender’s timid demeanour in his handful of United outings to date.
In addition to this, his positioning was flawless. In the second leg, Sweden defended from a low block and looked to hit Italy in the break, utilising the creative savvy of RB Leipzig playmaker and reported Manchester United transfer target Emil Forsberg in the opposition’s half.
Lindelöf was always well stationed to deal with the threat of aerial balls into the box and maintained optimum spacing between himself and his central-defensive partner, meaning Italy found in incredibly difficult to break the Swedes down. Their growing frustration resulted in direct, route-one balls forward as time ticked down, all easily dealt with by Lindelöf and co..
Indeed, in the second leg alone, Lindelöf racked up a staggering 11 clearances, more than any other player on the pitch.
The fact that the ultra-defensive tactics Sweden employed are not wholly dissimilar to those utilised by Mourinho away from home in key fixtures surely bodes well for Lindelöf’s long-term prospects at Old Trafford, showing he has the discipline and tactical understanding to excel in a well-defined, rigid defensive system.
Fresh off the back of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia, and playing a lead role in his country’s success in the tense and high-pressure play-off, Lindelöf’s confidence will be higher than it has been since he arrived in Manchester.
And that is precisely why Saturday evening’s fixture against Newcastle United presents the perfect opportunity for Mourinho to hand the 23-year-old his first Premier League start.
The Magpies have performed admirably since their return to the top flight and are comfortably in mid-table after 11 games, having previously looked like contesting European place.
But Rafa Benítez’s men are blunt in attack, averaging less than a goal a game so far this term, owing largely to the fact the Spanish tactician was denied the funds to secure a high-calibre striker over the summer, having to make do with the £5million arrival of Joselu from Stoke City.
As such, they represent the ideal opponent for Lindelöf to be blooded against. Mourinho would be wise to ride the defender’s wave of momentum started by his international exploits and take advantage of his soaring confidence by backing him from the start against Newcastle.