Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side made a winning return to the Champion’s League with a fairly routine 3-0 win over their bogey side Basel.
Back in 2011 the Swiss side played a major role in dumping United out of the competition. With the manager changing the whole back four on Tuesday night, fans could be forgiven a few nerves.
Mourinho doesn’t see Chris Smalling as a long-term option at centre back. The Portuguese coach has been particularly scathing about Smalling’s ability to pass the ball out from the back and has even questioned his courage in the past. After initial excitement upon the signing of Victor Lindelof, there were concerns voiced, perhaps somewhat prematurely, after a couple of below-par pre-season displays. The European Super Cup loss to Real Madrid reflected well on neither player.
Grew Into Game
However, Lindelof’s performance, while admittedly not the most strenuous of Champions League tests, was more encouraging for the young Swede. He grew into the game with every minute on the pitch, showing the full range of his defensive capabilities.
It could be argued that this was the ideal game for Lindelof to make his first competitive start, maybe even by Mourinho himself. Basel got men forward when they could, but their forward players were isolated. There was still plenty of sweeping up for United’s defenders to get through.
Lindelof showed great strength in one on one situations, as well as covering ground quickly when chasing opposition attackers down the channels. At 6’2″, Lindelof isn’t the tallest centre back on United’s books but he looked more than capable in the air, showing more desire to attack crosses than Smalling all evening. He also took on the responsibility of playing the ball out from the back when he had to.
Mourinho has been quick to dismiss any notions of Lindelof struggling. He even went so far as to suggest that the former Benfica man could go on to emulate Ricardo Carvalho, one of the great defenders of the last 20 years who Mourinho signed three times.
“Victor is an intelligent kid, he is very calm and of course he wants to play. We take it step by step. [At Chelsea] we had one of the best central defenders in the Premier League’s last decade, Ricardo Carvalho, and when he arrived from Portugal he was in trouble a little bit to adapt. Then he had an amazing career in the Premier League after that and I am sure Victor will be the same.”
High praise indeed from a coach who can identify a top defender and has the ability to create one on the training pitch.
When Lindelof initially signed, United fans were fed the notion of a young, commanding centre half who dominated strikers with his physical attributes.
A defender who could play the ball out from the back or carry it himself. By all accounts he was all of those things in the Portuguese league. The Super Cup defeat raised some fair questions about the youngster.
Lindelof will get the chance to grow into this United side. As things stand he is arguably fifth choice behind Bailly, Jones, Smalling and the injured Marcos Rojo. United could play over 60 games this season and will need at least four centre halves playing regularly. A couple more performances like last night’s should see Lindelof get plenty of appearances under his belt, perhaps even at the expense of England’s Smalling.