Much has been made of a potential move launched by Manchester United for Benfica centre back Victor Lindelöf, who could, eventually, be joined by defensive counterpart Nélson Semedo in a historic double swoop.
The latest murmurs surrounding the multi-million-pound operation, however, suggest any hope the Red Devils may have had of gaining the Sweden international’s signature may have been dampened.
At the heart of the deal’s supposed collapse is the public dispute between Benfica and Lindelöf’s former club, Västerås, over alleged fees owed in his initial transfer to Portugal, although José Mourinho may also have had a hand in United turning their backs on a £42 million transfer. Just how accurate might that decision be?
Beyond the media storm surrounding Renato Sanches in Lisbon last season, Lindelöf proved to be equally as impressive and pivotal to Benfica’s run en route to the Liga NOS title last season, as he capitalised on injuries to first-team centre-backs to forge a stellar partnership alongside Jardel for over half a season.
The 22-year-old tasted defeat just five times in 45 games since breaking into Benfica’s XI, three of those coming in the UEFA Champions’ League against Napoli (2x) and Bayern Munich, with FC Porto and Maritimo also claiming rare victories against the Swede.
With 22 clean sheets under his belt, Lindelöf picked up “The Iceman” nickname for his composure and calculated interventions that has seen the defender gain just five yellow cards in the last 12 months.
Additionally composed and exemplifying qualities that fall within the modern-day ball-playing defender template, his talents didn’t go unnoticed by his national team when earning the call-up for Euro 2016, and now it appears Man United have followed suit in attraction to his traits.
Up against his United counterparts, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly, none of the aforementioned options to Mourinho have completed as many successful passes (51.71 per game), or indeed successful forward passes (47.21 per game) as Lindelöf in their respective league competition.
Only Bailly with 1.64 tackles won per game beats the rumoured United target, whereas it is Chris Smalling who is the only defender to lose out fewer times than the man lauded for his precision when defending. Although he’s some way off the top with a statistical register of 1.71 interceptions per game versus Bailly’s 2.82, the Swedish star does mix in well with Rojo’s 1.80 and Jones’ 1.75 score, both second and third ahead of Lindelöf.
Blocks made by the defenders paint a similar picture, with Bailly leading the way with 0.45 made per game to Lindelöf’s 0.36, but there’s one fact the core stats don’t highlight and that’s the degree to which the defenders in question are exposed to the threats of high-quality attacks.
Lindelöf has, undoubtedly, emerged as top performer for Benfica, but this has all come in a visibly inferior league. One shouldn’t have to remind many of the below-par figure that was ex-Liverpool and Sunderland centre-back Sebastian Coates, the same man who now, at the same time as Lindelöf, leads by example as one of the Portuguese league’s most consistent players at the back.
Likewise, Manchester City’s £32 million flop, Eliaquim Mangala, was totally imperious for much of his three-year-spell in Portugal when starring for the then champions FC Porto, meanwhile memories of the Frenchman in the blue half of Manchester weren’t as fond as his record deal promised.
A common attitude within the realms of Portuguese football sees most sides outside the traditional top four of Benfica, Sporting, Porto and Braga opt to “park the bus” and time-waste from the first minute as if it were the last when facing a big boy. In turn, that limits the pressure that key defenders like Lindelöf, Mangala etc. are subjected to, thus making it very tricky to truly judge the qualities that they possess.
It’s a decision Mourinho will undoubtedly continue to mull over, with the rumour mill still at its birth. In the meantime, the recent pairing of Jones and Rojo has stabilised the ship at Old Trafford, with Smalling still to return to the first-team, one would assume, following a lengthy foot injury.
The investment made in Bailly appears to have been a good one, and despite international duty making him unavailable for the best part of a month during the African Cup of Nations, United still have the versatile Daley Blind to fall back on.
And so for all the promise (and doubts) hanging over Lindelöf’s shoulders, just how necessary to Man United is the £38 million-rated man?