How Manchester United's Victor Lindelof Learned to Thrive in Adversity

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 31, 2019

Manchester United's Victor Lindelof during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
Bleacher Report

Manchester United's attacking players may have garnered most of the plaudits since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's transformative appointment as interim manager at the end of December, but Victor Lindelof's role in the team's resurgence has been just as significant.

Derided as a flop in the light of some shaky performances following his £31 million move from Benfica in June 2017, the Swedish centre-back is looking increasingly assured at the heart of United's defence.

Under Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer's predecessor, Lindelof had already produced some authoritative defensive displays this season, from going toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo in the UEFA Champions League to playing through injury in United's 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace in November.

But Solskjaer's more attack-minded philosophy has enabled Lindelof to showcase another side to his game. The 24-year-old now has more opportunities to carry the ball out of defence, and his incisive forward passes have become an important component of United's new approach.

According to data provided by Opta, since Solskjaer took over, Lindelof ranks fifth among Premier League centre-backs for expected assists (xA) and a respectable 13th for passes completed in the opposition half.

"He's a cultured, European centre-back," Solskjaer told reporters after United's 4-1 win over Bournemouth on December 30. "He gets on the ball, passes it really well and knows when to quicken things up."

A virtual ever-present under Solskjaer—he has only missed an FA Cup game against Reading—Lindelof has helped United tighten up at the back, with goals conceded per game down from 1.46 under Mourinho to 0.78. He has even started to assert himself in the opposition penalty area, scoring his first goal for the club to rescue a last-gasp 2-2 draw with Burnley on Tuesday.

Manchester United's Swedish defender Victor Lindelof (R) shoots to score their second goal to equalise 2-2 during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Burnley at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on January
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Few people would have envisaged that Lindelof would become such an influential figure during his difficult early months as a United player, but he has been defying expectations since the start of his career.

He joined the first-team squad of his formative club, Vasteras SK, as a skinny 15-year-old central midfielder. And after being repositioned as a right-back, he made his debut at the age of just 16.

"No one expected him to take a starting jersey at Vasteras at 16 years old, but he kept on grinding and working and always having the mindset to keep on improving," former Vasteras head coach Kalle Granath told Bleacher Report. "I remember thinking, 'This kid never stops.'"

Granath remembers Lindelof as an attentive, disciplined, hardworking player who took pride in preparing himself meticulously. On the rare occasions when he was negligent in his preparations, his mother, Ulrica, would ride to the rescue.

"He was always very well-prepared," Granath says. "I always tell a story about his mother coming with his sandwiches if he forgot them. He went straight from school to our football practice, so she'd go on her bike. 'Victor, Victor, you forgot your sandwiches!' Maybe that was a good investment from her, to bring him the sandwiches."

Lindelof truly became a first-team player during his second season at Vasteras, and although the team were relegated to Sweden's third tier, having been promoted the season before, he was beginning to attract attention. In December 2011, following reports he was set to join Swedish heavyweights IFK Goteborg, he signed for Benfica in a move that shocked Lindelof's team-mates and the player himself.

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 13: Benfica's defender Victor Nilsson-Lindelof from Sweden during the match between SL Benfica and Vitoria SC for the Portuguese Primeira Liga at Estadio da Luz on May 13, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty
Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

In a piece for The Players' Tribune, published in 2018, Lindelof wrote about the difficulties he faced after arriving in Lisbon in the summer of 2012, describing his first six months at Benfica as being "so, so tough" and revealing that he spent almost all of his free time watching episodes of the HBO comedy series Entourage.

Yet Joao Tralhao, who was then Benfica's under-19s coach, says Lindelof quickly put his homesickness behind him and embraced his new environment. Whereas many of Benfica's young players elect to live in or near the club's academy, which sits in the city of Seixal, Lindelof decided he was going to live on the other side of the Tagus river in Lisbon city centre.

"He travelled every time to the academy on his own by boat," says Tralhao. "Most of the players get a car or take a taxi, but he always took public transport. He was very humble, and he's a very independent guy. He wanted to adapt to Lisbon's culture."

With future Juventus player Joao Cancelo having staked a claim to the right-back berth for Benfica's under-19s, Lindelof found himself playing in midfield again. Though he made his first-team debut in October 2013, he spent most of his first three years at the club playing for Benfica's reserves. But he never lost faith.

"The competition meant it was really, really difficult for him to play," says Tralhao, who was most recently employed as an assistant to Thierry Henry at Monaco.

"But he never gave up. He always worked. The thing I liked the most about him was his character. He's very clever, and mentally, he's very strong.

"The way he dealt with the frustration of having one more year in the youth team, one more year in the reserves, meant that when he had an opportunity to be in the first team, he took it with both hands."

Lindelof won Swedish player of the year in 2018
Lindelof won Swedish player of the year in 2018MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Getty Images

Lindelof finally broke into the Benfica first team midway through the 2015-16 season, and he would remain there until the end of the following campaign, helping the club to back-to-back Portuguese league titles. He became a Sweden international in 2016 and started all three of his country's games at UEFA Euro 2016.

The upward trajectory of Lindelof's career appeared to be under threat when his initial outings for United yielded some decidedly unconvincing performances. He had a nightmare in United's 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield Town in October 2017, and as recently as August, Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher was expressing sympathy for him and opining that he was "out of his depth".

Former Manchester United defender Paul Parker concurs that Lindelof looked "very shaky" when he first joined the club. But the former England right-back feels that just as Mourinho's departure has lifted the spirits of United's attacking players, so it has eased some of the pressure on the club's defenders, who frequently found themselves in the firing line when the Portuguese was at the helm.

"Every time they played, they were worried about being ridiculed," Parker told Bleacher Report. "Lindelof suffered, Phil Jones suffered, Chris Smalling suffered, Luke Shaw suffered.

"Everyone's talking about the attacking side. Someone just had to push the button and get the players to improvise and go and enjoy themselves. For the defensive players, it was hard work for them mentally because they were constantly being told by every media outlet that Mourinho was looking for a centre-half."

Granath says United's more proactive approach under Solskjaer, who has yet to taste defeat after nine matches in charge, is enabling Lindelof to play his natural game.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13: Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur in action with Victor Lindelof of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on January 13, 2019 in London, Unit
Marc Atkins/Getty Images

"His strength is his offensive play," Granath said. "He's obviously not afraid of doing defensive work, but that's where he really shines."

Tralhao believes Lindelof's qualities mean he was bound to come good in the end, irrespective of who was sitting in the dugout.

"Regardless of whether it's Mourinho or Solskjaer, I think he will perform the same," Tralhao said. "Because he's a very good player. He just needed to adapt.

"I'm not surprised by his performances now because I knew he would be very important for Manchester United. If you wanted to choose one player who can deal with this kind of frustration and criticism, it's him."

Lindelof need not look far for examples of expensively acquired United centre-backs who overcame difficult starts to become celebrated mainstays. Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic all received flak for their early displays in a United shirt but went on to become keystone figures in trophy-winning teams.

For all the progress they have made under Solskjaer, United remain some way off the heights they were accustomed to scaling under Sir Alex Ferguson. But should the club's recent revival endure, Lindelof could yet claim a place in Old Trafford folklore.

"All those players went on and played in great Manchester United teams," says Parker, who won two Premier League titles under Ferguson in the 1990s. "That makes a difference.

"Lindelof has got to do his job and hope that Manchester United get back to where they were. If he evolves [like] any of those centre-backs and is playing in a great Manchester United team, we might be talking about him among those players."

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