Manchester United may be close to striking out with Eric Bailly. The Ivorian, signed for £30m in 2016, has just completed a three-game suspension for a reckless and rather needless challenge in his first chance to impress interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer against Bournemouth and remains heavily linked with a move out of Old Trafford before the start of next season.
Bailly arrived from Villarreal as an unpolished gem. He showed much early promise and his aggressive style of play looked as though it would be well suited to the bruising world of Premier League football, so long as his rough edges could be smoothed out.
Two-and-a-half seasons on, Bailly appears arguably less polished than when he arrived. At nearly 25 years of age, he also no longer has the ‘developing talent’ label to hide behind.
If anything, his rash tendencies are evidence that he is trying too hard to impress, to stake his claim for a regular place and prove that he can be a United player. But all too often when he has been given a chance this season, Bailly has been more of a liability than an asset.
It has been a different story for United with Victor Lindelof, signed 12 months after Bailly for a similar fee. Unlike his fellow centre-back, the Swede started slowly in England and has taken his time to develop and improve, now reaching a point where he is the best defender at the club.
Following his high profile arrival from Benfica, Lindelof had relatively quickly been labelled a ‘flop’ by a bloodthirsty media. Previous manager Jose Mourinho initially only trusted him in the more technical setting of the Champions League and against lower league opposition in the EFL Cup, away from the nitty gritty cutthroat world of the Premier League.
In fact, Lindelof wasn’t even named on the bench by Mourinho for six of the opening seven league fixtures of last season. He eventually made his Premier League debut as a last minute substitute against Liverpool in mid-October, soon followed by a complete nightmare at Huddersfield, where injury to Phil Jones saw him thrown into the game during the first half.
Lindelof was culpable for both Huddersfield goals as United lost, turned inside out by Tom Ince in the build up to the first and misjudging a high ball to let Laurent Depoitre in for the second. Mourinho was keen to avoid pointing the finger, but the press viewed the game as ‘evidence’ of why the boss had been so unwilling to use his expensive new signing.
Unsurprisingly, Lindelof was immediately ejected from the squad for the next two Premier League games, either side of also being dropped to the bench in Europe. He continued to be in and out of the team for the remainder of the season, although there were flashes of potential, on his return to action for a 4-1 win against Newcastle that November, for example.
But if a difficult club season had been a test of his mentality, Lindelof couldn’t have wished for a better summer. Chosen for the World Cup, he helped Sweden top their group ahead of holders Germany and perennial knockout team Mexico, and go as far as the quarter finals for the country’s best performance on the global stage in 24 years and in his lifetime – as chance would have it he was born the day after Sweden’s third/fourth place playoff game at USA ’94.
And when it recently came to handing out the 2018 Guldbollen to Sweden’s player of the year, a prize won 11 times by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and previously by the likes of Henrik Larsson and Gunnar Nordahl, the gong went to Lindelof ahead of any of his colleagues.
High on confidence after the World Cup, combined with the important experiences of his debut season with United, and after a full 12 months of also settling off the pitch, Lindelof, now 24 years of age, was ready to make good on his potential when the 2018/19 campaign kicked off. And that is exactly what has happened, even more so in the last few weeks alone.
There were up and down moments earlier in the season – he was even dropped briefly in early December and perhaps no United player can be fairly judged on the final few months of Mourinho’s reign. But, right now, Lindelof is one of the first names on the teamsheet and seems likely to stay there, probably for years, if he continues his current form and develops further as expected.
Fans perhaps don’t always see what Lindelof does because of his more subtle style, and when he plays well it doesn’t command the same attention that a more high octane defender like Bailly would. What the ‘Ice Man’ is brilliant at his reading danger and positioning himself accordingly.
He is what one might describe as a ‘clean shorts’ defender, where the anticipation is higher and the need to make heroic slide tackles and blocks is less. But that isn’t to say the physical is beyond him – an article published on United’s official website after the Tottenham game even spoke of déjà vu for Nemanja Vidic when Lindelof strongly tackled Harry Winks.
There was a short passage of play against Newcastle recently in which he won a header, made a good pass and won a tackle, all in a short burst, perfectly encapsulating what a modern centre-back needs to be.
Lindelof isn’t the finished product yet by any means – he is only now the same age as Vidic was when he arrived at Old Trafford this month 13 years ago – and still also needs a world class partner, or at least someone other than Phil Jones, to take things to the next level. Whether that could be Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, as argued here, remains to be seen. But what appears increasingly more certain with each passing game is that United were right to buy Lindelof, right to keep faith when things got tough, and will now reap the rewards for a long time yet to come.