When Luisão says that there have been times when he has mistaken Victor Lindelof for a player in his 30s, the gnarly Brazilian who has never held back in his role as the leader of Benfica’s defence is paying his young colleague the highest possible compliment.
Although it could be mistaken for a dismissive observation about Lindelof’s cumbersome movement, instead it is Luisão’s way of expressing his admiration for a blossoming defender whose eerie composure explains why José Mourinho was so determined to bring him to Manchester United.
Luisão is not alone in regarding the 22-year-old as mature beyond his tender age and it is that very quality, that ability to stay cool under pressure and take everything in his stride, that has allowed Lindelof to develop from a Benfica reserve into one of the hottest young talents in Europe, all in the space of 18 months.
At the start of 2016, Lindelof was little more than raw potential, a youngster who was yet to prove that he was good enough to replace his more established team-mates in the first team. People at Benfica knew that he was gifted, but they had not seen enough evidence to suggest that the Swede was ready to make the jump. Sure, he made his professional debut for Vasteras at the age of 16 but his experience of playing in the Swedish lower leagues was incomparable to the intense challenge of competing with Porto and Sporting Lisbon for the Portuguese title. And yes, Benfica had bought him when he was 17. But a big move came with no guarantees of regular football. He would have to prove himself first and he would have to do it the hard way.
Some young players might have grown impatient in Lindelof’s position. They might not have been willing to work. They might have believed their own hype. Lindelof, after all, was a captain for Sweden at youth level. He was a key member of the Under-21 team that won the European Championship in the summer 2015, beating Portugal on penalties in the final. But when he returned to his club for pre-season training, nothing had changed. He would still have to wait his turn.
Come the turn of the year, Lindelof’s moment had still not arrived and there was furtive talk of a move to Middlesbrough, but he was rewarded for his patience when Lisandro López suffered an injury when Benfica travelled to Moreirense shortly before the closure of the winter transfer window. His aim wasn’t to prove people wrong but to make himself undroppable. Lindelof played the final 30 minutes and oozed class and assurance in a 4-1 win. His nervelessness was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance – no wonder they call him The Iceman in Lisbon – and there could be no doubt that he was ready for the testing months ahead. Before long Lindelof was excelling in a Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich and he played every minute of Benfica’s final 14 league matches, helping them to pick up the 13 wins that meant they finished two points above Sporting at the top of the table.
Young centre-backs can be prone to errors but Lindelof’s outstanding form earned him a place in Sweden’s Euro 2016 squad and those who have known him since the start are not surprised that United have bought him for £31m. “He was a leader in a natural way,” Claes Eriksson, the manager of Sweden’s Under-19s, says. “Not shouting but leading by a good example. I think he has a good opportunity to succeed at United because he does everything at 100%. It is the top level, so you never know, but I think he can handle the pressure. Mentally he is very strong. I think that will not be a problem for him.”
His decision to leave home at such a young age was an indication of Lindelof’s toughness and he has not looked back since getting his break against Moreirense, helping Benfica to defend the title last season and becoming an influential player for his country at senior level.
Although Lindelof started as a right-back and sometimes even played as a right midfielder, he was always destined for central defence and Mourinho admires his strength, aerial power, ability on the ball and versatility. United can be confident that Lindelof and Eric Bailly, the speedy 23-year-old Ivorian who impressed in his debut season at Old Trafford, will form the solid partnership that they have lacked since time caught up with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Although Lindelof does not possess lightning speed, his astute reading of the game meant he was booked only once last season and he demonstrated a knack for the spectacular when he earned Benfica a point with a thunderous free-kick against Sporting in April. Eriksson believes he is the complete defender.
“He always had very good technique,” Eriksson says. “He could read the game and see danger early when he was 16 or 17 years old. He is 100% an athlete. He was the captain for the national teams, so I am not surprised that he has developed the way he has now. He is the best player you can get. He was quite big and strong for his age. You could see that he was a very good player and he could go far. He is one of the best defenders we have had in Sweden for a couple of years. I don’t see any weaknesses.”
With those kind of references, it is easy to see why Mourinho wanted him.
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