Why Lindelof signing shows Man United have caught up with the top sides

If you were to look at where Manchester United needed reinforcements last season, centre-back may not have seemed like a top priority.

The Red Devils finished the season with just 29 goals conceded, second only to Spurs’ 26, and managed an impressive 16 clean sheets.

That doesn’t tell the full story however, as Jose Mourinho never really found his preferred centre-back pairing as his backline was ravaged by injuries. Over the course of the season, the Portuguese coach used seven different partnerships, never really sticking with one longer than a month.

The fact he rarely trusted his defenders also meant the team struggled at the other end of the pitch (they only managed 54 goals – one less than Bournemouth) as he was often forced to use more negative tactics to accommodate the shortcomings of his backline.

That’s probably the reason why Mourinho’s first foray into the transfer market hasn’t been a striker to replace the top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but another Swede, in towering centre-half Victor Lindelof.

On the face of it, the £30m man from Benfica has just been brought in to solidify the defence and partner Eric Bailly. But in reality, his role could be much more important than that.

It is instead the Swede’s ability to bring the ball out of defence and pick a pass that could prove to have a real impact on the United side.

The 22-year-old had the joint-best passing success rate of any centre-back in the Portuguese top flight with 90% and made an impressive five key passes from the back. Lindelof’s arrival could well have the same effect as another man who once moved from Benfica to the Premier League.

When David Luiz first arrived at Chelsea back in January 2011, he appeared to be blessed with footballing ability yet prone to lapses in concentration at the back.

He returned to Stamford Bridge last summer after a spell as Paris Saint-Germain and was one of the key performers for Antonio Conte’s side as they lifted the title.

The Italian’s decision to play three at the back allowed Luiz to break forward and get involved with the attack, safe in the knowledge he had Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill covering him.

Having a defender who is good with the ball at this feet seems to be in vogue at the moment, as we’ve also seen with Toby Alderweireld at Spurs and Virgil Van Dijk at Southampton.

While he is by no means a poor defender, Lindelof’s time in Portugal showed the youngster currently needs a strong defensive partner to help him out. Thankfully, in Eric Bailly, he seems to have just that.

The Ivorian enjoyed an immense first season at Old Trafford and should allow the Swede to push forward on occasion to try and start an attack.

It may even signify a change to a three-man defence for United – something they may not want to hear after its failure in the early days of Louis van Gaal.

Unlike back in 2014 when the Dutchman arrived however, having a trio in defence seems to be catching on.

Chelsea famously won the league after switching to 3-4-3, while the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and occasionally Manchester City had success with similar formations.

Mourinho even experimented with it in both legs against Rostov in the Europa League, although with mixed success.

Once Marcus Rojo has recovered from injury it will be interesting to see if Mourinho alters his formation to fit his side.

In the meantime, United could have an elegant ball-player next to a warrior in defence – something they’ve not seen since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

A very exciting prospect indeed.

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