It would not be unfair of me to suggest that Victor Lindelof has had a slightly shaky start to his Manchester United career, looking unconvincing in his pre-season appearances to date, conceding a clumsy penalty in the draw with Real Madrid and then taking one of the poorest penalties you’ll ever see in what was possibly the worst shootout victory of all time. It has not been the most auspicious of beginnings for the Swede at the club. Having seen him play less than a handful of times for Benfica and Sweden I am poorly placed to say whether these early wobbles are representative of the player’s gifts, but it would be a surprise given that Jose Mourinho is a fine spotter of defensive talent. Regardless, some of the most iconic central defenders ever to appear for United made even more dubious starts at the club.
An obvious example is Nemanja Vidic, who arrived in Manchester in a January move from Spartak Moscow and proceeded to stink the Premier League up for the remainder of the season, most notoriously getting flamed by the otherwise entirely forgettable David Bentley, who scored a hat trick as Blackburn Rovers beat United 4-3 at Ewood Park. The Serb, of course, went on to. become one of United’s greatest ever centre backs and formed one half of what must surely be the single finest defensive partnerships ever seen at Old Trafford with Rio Ferdinand. First impressions, thankfully, do not always count.
The same could be said of Jaap Stam, signed from PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 1998. A shaky World Cup in France did not bode well for the Dutchman and a chastening first experience of English football was experienced at Wembley as Nicholas Anelka tore him apart in the Charity Shield. The erratic defending continued in the early months of the season, culminating in a second 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Arsene Wenger’s team, this time at Highbury. This, however, proved to be the nadir, United going unbeaten in the Premier League for the remainder of that season and ultimately winning a stunning treble. The importance of the big Dutchman was not entirely apparent until Sir Alex stunned the English football world by selling him to Lazio and replacing him with the classy but painfully over-the-hill Laurent Blanc. United’s results collapsed that season and the Scot classes disposing of Stam to be one of his greatest mistakes.
However, in a choice which rather betrays my age, the parallel that seems most vivid when assessing Lindelof’s early days at United is with Gary Pallister, a £2.3m British record signing from Middlesbrough in 1989. The Englishman’s first start was in his new club’s third game of the season at home to then ‘bogey’ side Norwich City. To say that the new signing was hopeless would be an understatement and a forgettable debut was capped by a clumsy foul for a penalty which was converted in a 2-0 defeat. Bad times. It was a shaky first season for all of Fergie’s recruits that summer, but like Paul Ince, Pallister recovered to form a watertight defensive partnership with Steve Bruce and play a significant part in United finally regaining the title and dominating the early Premier League era. It is safe to say that Victor Lindelof has some way to go to match the disastrous beginnings in a red shirt experienced by some of his club’s most iconic central defenders and it would be foolish to judge after less than 180 minutes of football. At 22 he is younger than any of the above when they joined and whilst I risk Twitter goons shouting “KHALID BOULAHROUZ’ at me it would be unwise to bet against Jose Mourinho when it comes to identifying defenders. The impossibly classy Eric Bailly says “hi”.
In the last week United have played two friendlies, the first a comfortable and satisfying win over Pep Guardiola’s Harlem Globetrotters. The 2-0 victory gave us a glimpse of what we hope to get from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford this coming season, namely pace, power and deadly finishing. Pre-season results and performances should always be treated with care, as the successful summer prior to Louis Van Gaal’s first season demonstrated, but they can give us a snapshot of some of what will follow. The alarming naivety of David Moyes and his team was highlighted in a disastrous pre-season in Asia and Jose Mourinho will likely not have forgotten the wretched pre-season prior to his appalling final season at Chelsea, his team of Premier League champions failing to win a friendly all summer. In contrast United first four games have been largely positive, most notably for Rashford and Andreas Pereira, who has stood out in a deep midfield role, the Belgo-Brazillian impressing once more in the draw with a far stronger Real Madrid side. With his midfield options yet to be strengthened the manager must surely see the value in keeping Pereira around.
The same can be said of Anthony Martial, whom Inter are pursuing in any deal that would bring Ivan Perisic to United. That transfer looks increasingly unlikely as the Italians dig in, particularly after the Frenchman’s mazy run set up Jesse Lingard’s goal against Real. Mourinho said after the match that Martial has to be more consistent, but given the player’s extravagant gifts giving in so early would be an absurdity.
United’s attempts to strengthen the midfield have also thus far been thwarted. Eric Dier appears unobtainable (who knew!?) whilst the price appears potentially prohibitive for Nemanja Matic. Ed Woodward and Mourinho have suddenly become disciples of sensible spending, which is fine in principle but won’t necessarily close the gap to the teams above. The obvious two positions need improving and there is time still to do that, but an unimaginative list of targets does not appear to helping in that regard. The sudden preaching of frugality should be a reminder to the fans that contrary to popular belief United do not have the endless lines of credit available to clubs owned by small and very wealthy countries or rich benefactors, and whilst they have more cash than any other self-funding club even those funds are finite. Ed Woodward’s wet dream is to lure Neymar to Old Trafford and with his exit from Barcelona looking very possible some have been critical of his decision not to follow PSG and pursue his signature. The reality is that if the deal was affordable United would almost certainly be in for the Brazilian. They aren’t and it almost certainly isn’t. City got Sheikh Mansour, United got a tight ginger gnome.
United and Mourinho announced this week that David De Gea would not be leaving for Madrid this summer, two weeks after the club rather strangely appeared to be trying to goad Real into bidding for the player. It clearly didn’t work, with the Spaniards again rejecting the opportunity, giving us another twelve months of Dave’s exquisite talents. Remarkably for a goalkeeper with his gifts it appears that neither his current club nor his potential suitors are completely committed to having him on their books. United fans are another story all together, however.