There were a number of areas for concern surrounding the Manchester United squad in 2016-17 but none made fans fret quite like the perceived gaps in defence. When it came to the back-line, nothing felt assured or permanent during Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge at Old Trafford.
While Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind shared the central defensive responsibilities to begin with, it was Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo who formed the best partnership as the term progressed despite misgivings about their individual qualities.
For many supporters, though, there was never any great confidence in the rearguard, with the feeling being that everything could come crashing down without a moment’s notice.
Numbers-wise, United came out of the season reasonably well, but it came as a surprise to absolutely nobody that Mourinho’s most decisive move over the summer was the early purchase of Victor Lindelof from Benfica, having been linked with the Swede for much of last season.
Anyone who had watched Lindelof play knew he was a stand-out performer at domestic and European level for the Portuguese side.
However, the first three months of his United career have not played out that way, with the 23-year-old having featured in every cup game this term but still awaiting his Premier League debut as bottom-of-the-table Crystal Palace head for the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ on Saturday.
Lindelof struggled to come to terms with some of the higher-paced fixtures in pre-season, with his horribly late tackle on Real Madrid’s Theo Hernandez the mistake which gave supporters most cause for concern. He also appeared off the pace when the Blancos swept past United in the season-opening UEFA Super Cup clash.
As a result, Mourinho decided it would be best to ease him into the frenetic world of Premier League football. He has sent regular public assurances along the way, though, that this is simply an approach taken to best handle the transition, rather than an ostracism of sorts.
“Victor will be given time and no pressure for his evolution,” said the manager before Wednesday’s 4-1 thumping of CSKA Moscow.
“He has a very specific position on the pitch and he needs time. He will be given time but also opportunities, because with just time and no opportunities to play, then the evolution gets slower. He needs time, no pressure, but also he needs opportunities.
“The fact that he played against Basel and then against Burton, then in the future he’s going to have more opportunities to play… He will prove step by step that he is ready to play.”
The comparison with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s early experiences at United has been made often, and it was at this time last year that the Armenian was beginning to realise that his adaptation to the English game would not be played out in front of 75,000 people. Mourinho was insistent that Mkhitaryan would get his chance only when he could be sure he was ready and, by winter, the attacker had become one of the Portuguese coach’s key players.
However, in Lindelof’s case, he is not only in a more perilous position – as his manager has pointed out – in which errors are quickly turned into chances and goals for the opposition, he is also much younger.
Having only turned 23 during the summer, he is still developing. United fans shouldn’t need reminding of the difficulties suffered in front of the watching world by a 24-year-old Nemanja Vidic in the early months of his Old Trafford career.
With United largely performing with far more consistency at the back this season – only Stoke City’s Eric Choupo-Moting has scored against them in six Premier League games to this point – it means there is no rush to make the most of their €35 million summer signing.
Mourinho clearly believes in Lindelof enough to give him the responsibility of helping guide United through their Champions League group campaign. He also has trusted him in both a four-man defence and Wednesday’s three-man variation.
From the outside, it would appear that the Swede is not far from being given his wings by his manager, while everything coming out of Carrington suggests there is no ulterior motive behind the decision to hold Lindelof back thus far.
On Wednesday, Mourinho admitted he had “many doubts” over the likelihood of Jones being fit for Palace’s visit this weekend, leaving Smalling and Lindelof as potential replacements should the former Blackburn man not make it.
But even if it is Smalling who gets the nod on Saturday, there appears little doubt that Lindelof’s place in the United set-up is safe. It is just a matter of time before he is given the opportunity to finally get a taste of Premier League football.
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