The imminent captuire of Victor Lindelof says everything about what Jose Mourinho wants to accomplish at Manchester United, writes Jim White.
Never mind the buzz and glitter surrounding Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata, the fact that Manchester United’s first signing of the summer is set to be Victor Lindelof tells us much about Jose Mourinho’s priorities.
This is a manager who knows how to win the Premier League. And he knows the first essential element of any challenge is a pair of proper centre-backs. He had them in John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at Chelsea. He knows his history of Manchester United, aware they were at their most potent when they could rely on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic or Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce. Above all he knew he was not going to win the league dependent on a combination drawn from Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind, the cohort he was bequeathed by Louis van Gaal.
His first move was to bring in Eric Bailly last season, who already looks the part. But Bailly needs a consistent, reliable partner. Now United have paid £31 million for Benfica’s Swedish centre-back Mourinho has two fine prospects still in their early twenties. Play these two in front of David De Gea and it could be the bedrock of a long-running saga, the cornerstone of a title-challenging team.
A fee of £31m, more than the United record for a defender paid out to bring Ferdinand in from Leeds in 2002, may seem a mighty steep price tag for what is essentially still a work in progress. Because make no mistake about it, Lindelof is not yet the finished article, with much to learn, not least about the intensity of a Premier League season, something of which he has no experience gliding away at the top of the Portuguese league.
But in these days of hyper transfer inflation, that is likely to become the price of admission we will see this summer for a decent player. Absurd as it sounds, if Virgil van Dijk is expected to change hands at north of £60m, £31m for Lindelof is as close to a bargain as the mad world of football finance allows.
Lindelof is a prospect all right. Quick, strong, the Swede is a brilliant modern defender, someone who has played extensively at full-back, as at home in a back three as a back four. Sophisticated, cultured and multilingual, he showed his ambition by moving to Portugal as a 17-year-old. In Sweden he is already reckoned the natural heir to Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the country’s most influential footballer. He has a girlfriend busy on Instagram promoting his image as level-headed, calm and unflash. When he turns out in a yellow shirt – as he did in this week’s derby international against Norway - he already has the look of a leader.
And what is particularly noteworthy about him is his experience. He is 22, but already has 73 first-team appearances behind him at Benfica, including 12 in the Champions League. If there is no better place to learn the game than in the heat of the first team, then Lindelof is already well ahead of many of his contemporaries making their way in the English game.
Over the weekend, England’s Under-20s won the World Cup. It was a magnificent performance, proof that when it comes to technique and potential, English players are at the front of the international queue. A brilliant win it might have been, but the reward for most of those who participated is likely to be a season-long loan at Derby. Or Reading. Or Preston.
This has now become the Premier League norm. Millions are channelled annually into youth development. But then, the most crucial part of a player’s learning curve – the graduation into the first team – is largely blocked off. Sure, Everton, Southampton and Tottenham have promoted more than most. But the standard methodology in the Premier League is to deal only with those who are close to the finished article. And to pay out accordingly.
Take Timothy Fosu Mensah at United. An outstanding prospect, full of pace and aggression, about to turn 20: what he needs most of all now to test his potential is an extensive run in the first team. It won’t happen at Old Trafford. Particularly not now Lindelof has been brought in ahead of him. While the Swede was given his chance in Benfica’s first team at 20, at the same age Fosu Mensah will find his progress stalled. Even if he stays at Old Trafford this season, the young Dutchman is unlikely to add many to the dozen games he has already played for the Reds.
And it is understandable why. The sheer financial pressure to succeed in England is such that youth cannot be risked. So instead, Premier League clubs use the European leagues for their research and development. Instead of blooding their own, they pay someone else £31m to complete a player’s education. Football’s new economic truth is that even an institution as storied as Benfica has become a feeder club for the English giants.