Why Victor Lindelof's redemption best symbolises Manchester United’s turnaround under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Marcus Rashford’s goalscoring has stolen the headlines but United's recent success has been built off their solidified defence

Bradley West
Tuesday 05 February 2019 12:55
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer praises Manchester United match-winner Marcus Rashford

“He became a defender that was feared. He could fight with the most physical, he crunched into tackles, he attacked the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Rio Ferdinand’s glowing words exemplified just how imperious his long-time centre-back partner Nemanja Vidic was. But it was not always that way.

Rewind to February 2006 and a David Bentley-inspired Blackburn secured a famous 4-3 victory over Manchester United.

It was Nemanja Vidic’s third game for the club and he was run ragged during an adjustment period he later described as “difficult”.

Eleven years on and Victor Lindelof experienced his own ‘Blackburn moment’ in a Huddersfield horror show. But now the Swede seems to have turned things around to such an extent that his marshalling of United's defence represents the real embodiment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United revolution

Manchester United have won four more points than any other Premier League team since Solskjaer’s first match in charge and are now 10 games unbeaten in all competitions with confidence flowing and a sense of the old fear factor beginning to return.

In their scrappy win over Leicester, Rashford scored his 10th goal in all competitions this season but it was the work of centre-back pairing Eric Bailly and, particularly, Lindelof that ensured all three points returned to Manchester.

Solskjaer glowed with praise for both men after the match when he reflected on a performance that had seen the two throw themselves in front of the ball to ward off any and all attacks.

“Our lads, they blocked, they put their body on the line so it was a fantastic effort and they were fighting for each other.”

Garth Crooks, champion of the 11-man forwards XI, certainly did not hold back in his enthusiasm, either.

“Eric Bailly was a nervous wreck away against Brighton earlier in the season and Victor Lindelof wasn’t much better – but the pair looked like the superb former Italy defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta at their best against a very dangerous Leicester team.

Lindelof was integral to United’s scrappy clean sheet against Leicester on Sunday

“Lindelof in particular is playing with an authority I haven’t seen from him before. What is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feeding these boys?!”

Over-the-top Italian comparisons aside, the 24-year-old has earned the right to every bit of praise in a transformative season of the highest order.

Signed for £31m from Benfica in the summer of 2017, Lindelof represents United’s most expensive ever defender and, with only a season-and-a-half of first-team football under his belt at the time, was shaky at best to begin with.

Indeed, despite a year of English experience and slightly improved performance levels, Jamie Carragher was still compelled to pity the defender last August.

“I actually feel a bit sorry for him, he should not be playing at this level,” he said.

The Swede has been reborn under Ole Gunnar Solskjear

Jose Mourinho spent most of last summer looking for replacements such was the disappointment which surrounded Lindelof while his erratic performances served as a symbol and a sad indictment on Mourinho’s tragic fall at the end of his reign.

Under Solskjaer it has all clicked into place.

As an ever-present figure in the Norwegian’s new regime, Lindelof has improved all facets of his game from his physicality to his mental and technical skills.

It has been widely reported that Lindelof has worked on toughening up physically but the Swede has evidently worked at the finer details with his positioning and distribution also enhanced.

Before the visit to Leicester, Lindelof’s influence had resulted in United’s goals conceded per game falling from 1.46 under Mourinho to 0.78.

Furthermore, Lindelof’s duels won, duel success rate, aerials won and aerial success rate have all increased significantly from last season to this, with a particular spike under Solskjaer’s helm.

Rashford has stolen the headlines with his goalscoring form (AFP/Getty)

Per Opta, Lindelof is also the fifth best Premier League centre-back for expected assists (xA) and a respectable 13th for passes completed in the opposition half this season.

The Swedish defender, too, has benefited from a stable partnership with Phil Jones, a defender who has a new found confidence of his own.

All of which amounts to a man who is a far cry from the timid, uncertain liability of old. Lindelof has become one of the first names on the team sheet and his star turn is arguably the swiftest in the squad.

Rashford may have stolen the headlines with his proficiency in front of goal but this success has been built off of the foundation of a solid defence that has allowed those up top to thrive under new freedom.

Perhaps the biggest testament to Lindelof is the fact that his performances have reduced calls for a mass defender recruitment drive in the summer.

Although United will undoubtedly still look for reinforcements, it will now be to complement their latest redemption story.

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