Following a tiring summer of discontent, Jose Mourinho is starting to feel more mellow about the defensive element of his Manchester United squad, largely due to the selflessness of his most castigated player last season, Victor Lindelof.
Mourinho made it clear in the transfer window how much he wanted Ed Woodward to cough up the money for a Harry Maguire or Raphael Varane to help challenge Manchester City this season.
It didn’t happen but against a potentially divisive backdrop, 24-year-old Lindelof stepped forward and performed extremely well as the left-sided centre-back alongside Eric Bailly in last week’s opening victory against Leicester.
It epitomised the “team before self” attitude that Mourinho loves and with goalkeeper David de Gea also in talks about a new contract, things might not be as bleak at Old Trafford as fans feared.
Lindelof looked accident-prone and started only 13 Premier League games last season following a £31million move from Benfica but he impressed for Sweden at the World Cup and could be set for a big second year.
Certainly, there is a tradition of centre-halves in Manchester coming good after sticky starts. Nemanja Vidic, Nicolas Otamendi and, going further back, Gary Pallister can vouch for that.
‘We have five central defenders, all of them have different qualities and we have to read the situation match by match, but of course Victor is the youngest one so has more space to develop and improve,’ said Mourinho, who also has Bailly, Marcos Rojo and England internationals Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in contention to play at Brighton today.
‘Technically Victor is good. I am “punishing” him a little bit because I play him on the left side. He is better on the right side but so are the others and my option is to put him on the left because technically he is the best so he is the one that can compensate the fact it’s not his real position.’
Such insight from Mourinho is interesting. Rojo is predominantly left-sided but limited on the ball. And right-footed Smalling isn’t noted for being able to play out from the back.
It explains why, following the sale of Daley Blind to Ajax, Mourinho was so keen on Leicester’s Harry Maguire who is right-footed but played well on the left of a three-man England defence in Russia. United decided upstairs the £70million asking price wasn’t value for money.
Lindelof could therefore step into the breach. ‘He’s an intelligent guy, very humble, wants to learn, wants to work. And yes I expect this season to be better than last season,’ said Mourinho. ‘I expect him to feel more comfortable in the Premier League. If you remember, he had good matches last season in the Champions League, in Lisbon, in Moscow. It looked like he was more ready for continental football. But he’s a young guy and has conditions to improve. I believe in Victor.’
The big unknown is whether Mourinho will try to develop Bailly-Lindelof as a regular pairing, like Rio Ferdinand and Vidic, or if he’ll rotate centre-halves this year.
Mourinho’s fringe players let him down at Brighton last season in a 1-0 defeat. He can ill-afford a repeat this afternoon given that City are expected to retain their 100 per cent record against Huddersfield.
Romelu Lukaku could replace Marcus Rashford up front having made a cameo appearance against Leicester. Paul Pogba will retain the armband with Antonio Valencia not yet match-fit, Mourinho stating he is “happier than ever” with the Frenchman despite the feeling not always appearing mutual.
De Gea’s expected new deal is a boost. In an era where keepers are becoming more valued – Chelsea and Liverpool spent £140million on keepers this summer – Mourinho is happy he doesn’t have to look.
‘I always think my goalkeeper is the best in the world but I don’t want to appear disrespectful to Manuel Neuer or Thibaut Courtois. A better way of putting it is I wouldn’t swap David for anybody,’ said Mourinho.
‘A goalkeeper gives points, titles and is as important as another player. Sometimes people forget that.’
De Gea, left, suffered rare criticism at the World Cup when he let a Cristiano Ronaldo shot slip through his grasp. Mourinho thinks it was overblown.
‘David played four matches and made one mistake. And with that mistake, his team didn’t lose.
‘All the other guys were protected because they play for Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona. But the poor guy who plays in Manchester United was the one that was destroyed.
‘David knew perfectly he was not responsible for Spain being knocked out. He came back normal and in the States [on pre-season tour] he started working absolutely normal and here he is.’
Victor Lindelof’s form has saved United from splashing out £70m on Harry Maguire