Victor Lindelof's growing pains at Manchester United
As case studies on how the Premier League's unique demands need time for adjustment, Victor Lindelof is a pretty good one.
The Swede arrived from Benfica with an excellent reputation. He had won plenty in Portugal, had claimed the under-21 European Championship, and was named in UEFA's Breakthrough XI for 2016, alongside Christian Pulisic, Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembele. Yet now he consistently finds himself behind Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the pecking order. What has happened?
First, a quick note in defence of Jose Mourinho. That Breakthrough XI also featured one Renato Sanches, a player who has not exactly pulled up trees since his arrival on loan at Swansea City, illustrating just how important this stage of a young player's career can be. Lindelof is not destined for such an alarming descent, but the 23-year old does still have some way to go.
He can be encouraged by his fine performances in each leg of Sweden's World Cup playoff against Italy, where his country eliminated the four-time champions with a goalless draw away from home, and by some promising signs in a United shirt. The fact that he is not yet a regular does not mean that he does not have the brightest of futures at Old Trafford.
In order to explain why Lindelof is being kept waiting in the wings, it is instructive to look at the performances of Ashley Young. Young is not a natural left-back, but his performances of late have largely been of the greatest reliability. It was once said that Paulo Ferreira gave Mourinho's Porto a 7 out of 10 in every game he played, and that is Young's leading asset at this point of his career -- every single game, he will provide risk-averse and highly diligent defence. He is not Mourinho's ideal vision of a left-back, but he is probably his ideal vision of a team member.
That is not to say that Lindelof is selfish, or a worse defender than Smalling -- whose career at Manchester United has largely been characterised by lengthy periods of fairly good form, punctuated now and then by moments of alarming lapses in concentration. It is that Lindelof was probably signed to play a more expansive game than Smalling currently does, and until he does not show he can handle that additional responsibility then he will not start regularly.
Smalling's passing is frequently very conservative -- he is often found giving the ball to either full-back rather than sending it forward -- and so much so that it seems to be under Mourinho's instruction. It is doubtful that this is how Mourinho wishes things to be in the long-term, given that throughout his career he has built successful teams upon a platform of ball-playing centre backs -- witness Ricardo Carvalho, William Gallas and John Terry and the beginning, and latterly Pepe and Raphael Varane. By that logic, Lindelof still has a window of opportunity to succeed.
Lindelof's inability to establish himself as a starter only puts Eric Bailly's prominence into more impressive focus. Bailly, when at peak fitness, is comfortably United's best centre-back -- yet his fitness needs a significant caveat, given how often injury has made him absent of late. He and Lindelof were assumed by many to be United's first-choice centre-back pairing this season, yet that is not quite how it has worked out. Though United's defensive record has been strikingly good, that has been due in large part to the perennial brilliance of David De Gea and Mourinho's deployment of two defensive midfielders in front of the back four. United have a vulnerable nucleus, and no-one knows that better than their own manager.
Some might say that this reflects badly on Mourinho's recruitment, a critique which has gathered momentum with Henrikh Mkhitaryan's ultimate failure to make the grade. Lindelof's transfer fee -- just under £31 million, which makes him United's most expensive defender -- would be no barrier to him being quickly moved on, given that Mkhitaryan did not cost too much less and that we are now in an era where centre-backs can cost as much as £78 million.
Yet the story of defenders taking their time to settle at Old Trafford is nothing new, with even club legends Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand needing a substantial period for adjustment. The true question for Lindelof will be one not of ability -- which he has in abundance -- but of character. His passing and versatility speak heavily in his favour. In the coming months, he now needs that final degree of resolve to make his own breakthrough.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.