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What is wrong with Victor Lindelof?

The first signing of Jose Mourinho’s famed second season, Victor Lindelof, has not played a single minute in the Premier League despite being four games in. The usual excuse is that players need time to “get used to” the Premier League, but how will that be achieved when said player gets no minutes. The problem with Lindelof is not the league, but Manchester United and Jose Mourinho in particular.

The outstanding skills that Lindelof possesses are well documented. Lindelof is an excellent ball-playing centre-back, who has the ability to drive up the field with the ball and initiate passing moves with teammates. Lindelof’s passing is key when Manchester United is pressed by opposing teams. In order to evade the press, it is sometimes necessary to pass back to the center backs and let them invite the press so the midfield becomes less congested. Lindelof has an eye for penetrating balls that can bypass the press and start attacks. The problem with Lindelof is that the majority of his talents contribute to when Manchester United is on the ball, but defenders are first and foremost off the ball specialists, which Lindelof just isn’t.

Centre-backs typically come in two general molds when it comes to how they play off the ball: aggressors and cover defenders. Aggressors are their namesake, they engage on opposing ball-carriers and attempt to rob them of the ball. Cover defenders sit further back and are tasked with moving laterally and mopping up any attacks that get past the aggressor. The current starting centre-back pairing for Manchester United, Phil Jones, and Eric Bailly, are both capable of playing either the aggressor or cover role allowing for versatility and seamless defensive shape between the two. Lindelof is not adept at either role and that fact is what is holding him back from breaking into the Manchester United squad.

Being an aggressor requires physicality, aggressiveness(obviously), and assured tackling, all things Lindelof doesn’t really have. Despite being 6’ 1″, Lindelof is not an intimidating figure unlike the other centre-backs Manchester United has, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Eric Bailly(even Tuanzebe). So if Lindelof cannot fulfill the aggressor role then the cover role is his only hope. Cover defenders require pace, positional awareness, balance, and level-headedness, Lindelof possesses some of these traits and can at least learn the others.

Lindelof is a mobile centre-back dubbed “the Iceman” for his cool demeanor in games, however, he lacks the positional awareness and balance right now to play the role. Lindelof struggles to track runners and stay with his man, gets caught ball watching on crosses, and stumbles fairly regularly when turning to chase his man down. Mourinho is likely trying to iron out all these problems in training and is not willing to risk one of the early momentum and morale building games of the season to do it, that is why Lindelof is not being played right now.

The tools are there for Lindelof to be an exceptional defender, but much like Manchester City’s John Stones the mistakes have to be cut out and the purely defensive aspects of his game has to improve. Mourinho is probably confident in Lindelof’s ability to improve and that is why he courted him for half a year and chose him over other options such as Michael Keane. The dream scenario for many Manchester United fans is that Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof replicate the Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand combination, they have the potential and a manager with a track record of developing defensive talent, so why not that dream may become a reality.

Written by David Ndiyo

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