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Victor Lindelof and the importance of a ball-playing defender in the modern game

Gone are the days when centre backs were big brutes tasked only with the job of blocking shots, clearing crosses and making tackles. Nowadays, in addition to the above, centre backs are expected to carry the ball out of defence to start attacks and have the passing ability of a defensive midfielder to be capable of spraying passes all over the pitch.

It first started with Franz Beckenbauer – one of the greatest centre-backs of all time. Playing in the middle of a back three, he would pick up the ball and roam into the centre of the pitch. Having technical skills that rivalled anyone else on the pitch – the ball-playing defender was born. Having a centre back of this ilk brings a lot to a team. The way they can carry the ball forward means that you end up getting an extra man in midfield, overloading the opposition. This also allows the centre midfielders to push further up the pitch, granting them more freedom.

A ball-playing centre-back allows the fullbacks to play wider and higher, with the knowledge that they can be found with a long cross-field ball or even a pass over the top for them to run onto. In addition, they speed up the transition from front to back, as you can potentially skip a pass that would have previously been given to a centre midfielder. Finally, it means that teams are able to keep possession and break down opposition’s pressing by playing the ball out from the back, as the centre backs can handle being put under pressure without giving up possession.

When you think of the top teams in the world such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, there is something which they all (other than Manchester United) have in common. That something is a ball-playing centre-back. Barcelona have Gerard Piqué. Real Madrid have Sergio Ramos. PSG have Marquinhos and Thiago Silva. Bayern Munich have Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. Chelsea bought David Luiz last summer, and was arguably one of the most important players for them this season, allowing them to play the style of football they desired.

Manchester United have been lacking such a player since Rio Ferdinand. As such, the style of football which we all love has gone missing. With José Mourinho famously saying to Chris Smalling “with your feet, we’re for sure not playing out from the back!” in the build-up to the Europa League Final against Ajax. This, combined with Ajax’s high pressing game, lead Mourinho to play a long ball game – one which we as fans, don’t want to see.

Louis Van Gaal, for all his downfalls, recognised our need for a ball-playing defender and chose Daley Blind to play this role. This, however, did not solve the problem due to Blind lacking the height, strength and speed needed to carry out the normal defensive duties.

However, have Manchester United just signed the man to solve this problem and propel us back to the top of the world?

In Victor Lindelöf, United have a player standing at 1.87m (6ft 2 in) with the speed and strength to carry out all of his required defensive duties, but can he be the all coveted ‘ball-playing’ centre back which we are crying out for? The short answer is yes. With a pass accuracy of 90% in Portuguese Primeira Liga and 86% in the champions league, per One Football, it is clear he has real quality on the ball. He attempted 1991 passes in the Primeira Liga, the most of any defender. Lindelöf himself has spoken, in response to being asked the type of defender he is, of his like to “have the ball at his feet” and that he feels he is “calm” and “good with the ball”.

Furthermore, at the age of just 22, he has the confidence of youth required to handle such a demanding role. He has the arrogance to take the ball past defenders or fire a 60-yard pass. It is therefore clear that Lindelöf can play the role of a ball-playing centre back, and with high quality as well, potentially holding the key to transforming our team and getting us back to the wonderful flowing, attacking football that we all love.

Victor Lindelöf hasn’t got the same buzz upon signing as someone like Pogba got. He isn’t a ‘Galactico’ signing. And yet, he could be our most important signing of the last decade. Watch this space.

Written by Luke Crocker

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