On Wednesday, Victor Lindelof became Manchester United’s first signing of the summer. They could hardly have made a more positive statement to begin their transfer assault.
While much of the chat surrounding United so far has centred around attacking talents such as Antoine Griezmann, Alvaro Morata, Andrea Belotti and James Rodriguez, the addition of a quality young centre-half is exactly the kind of message Jose Mourinho and the board needed to send.
“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles,” said the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson of the desired constitution of a squad that is intended to challenge. And just as he based a series of United sides on the centre-back pairings of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, then Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen, followed by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Mourinho’s immediate concern has been to set the tone from the back.
Last summer saw Eric Bailly become the Portuguese’s first signing as United manager and he quickly impressed during his debut season. Now Lindelof becomes a Red Devil at the age of 22 and with a huge reputation already in his native Sweden.
With the ability to bully very good forwards but also provide a graceful first line of attack when on the ball, Lindelof looks more than ready to become a top-class centre-back of some repute. Chuck in his quality when both taking and converting set-pieces and he has plenty of tools in his armoury.
What’s more, he’s just what United need at the back. While their defensive record turned out pretty well in the end last season, the reality to the eye was that there were noticeable shortcomings defensively. At a time when Bailly should have been looking to his more settled colleagues for some stability, it was the Ivorian who was often left to bail his side out.
Chris Smalling has failed to deliver his 2015 form in the past 18 months and increasingly looks like a player destined to not quite hold his own at the very top of the game. Whereas he looked set to bolster his position as trusted United and England centre-back during Louis van Gaal’s Old Trafford stint, he has actually done little since then to win the faith of either Mourinho or Gareth Southgate.
Marcos Rojo finally took the chance to establish himself as a decent centre-half with United last season, only to suffer a campaign-ending knee ligament injury in April. The Argentine’s occasional rashness also remains a concern, meaning he would ideally be a back-up more often than a starter. Throw in Phil Jones’ propensity to pick up injuries, Axel Tuanzebe’s inexperience and the fact Daley Blind too regularly shows himself up as a defensive midfielder filling in at centre-back and United definitely needed to make a statement at the back.
Moreover, Mourinho is a manager who likes to have the option to close a game down when necessary and too often last season his side failed to do that thanks to their shortcomings at the back. Stoke, Arsenal, Everton, Bournemouth, Anderlecht and Swansea all pegged United back when they should have been seeing games out, while Celta Vigo came mighty close to wiping out a two-goal deficit in the Europa League semi-final.
In Lindelof they have somebody who has all the tools needed to succeed. He may make the odd mistake, but when has any 22-year-old been flawless? Look at Bailly’s debut season last year, when he proved himself to be a defender of real stature but would make occasional poor decisions, such as the one which ruled him out of the Europa League final through suspension. All in all, for a first season at Premier League level, he was a stand-out success.
And the same will be hoped of Lindelof. After impressing constantly during five seasons at Benfica, he looks ready to make that step up with United at a time when they need to be getting the structure in place to build a Premier League challenger of some regard.
Lindelof and Bailly have what it takes between them to become a centre-back pairing worthy of Manchester United, and what’s more they have time on their side. Both will be 23 by the time the Premier League season begins, and while Mourinho has garnered a reputation for not developing youngsters within his own club, this is most certainly a sign that the United boss is ready to put together a side which can succeed over a period of some years.
With a solid, durable defence, the midfield can be given slightly greater licence. With that increased freedom in the centre comes higher levels of support for an underperforming attack. This is not just a signing which will make United a tougher side to break down but also sets the marker down in their quest to become a more consistent attacking force.
If United can follow up this move with similarly-wise additions elsewhere in the squad then this could become a statement summer in Mourinho’s bid to bring the club’s first title since the Ferguson years. And it certainly comes across as a transfer the great man himself would approve of.