Victor Lindelof, who was at fault for Huddersfield Town’s second goal on Saturday, isn’t the first Manchester United player to have an inauspicious start to his Old Trafford career, and he won’t be the last.
Legendary defenders Gary Pallister, Nemanja Vidic, Jaap Stam and Patrice Evra all struggled to adapt to a new style of football in a new country. Goalkeeper David De Gea had a rough first six months, only to come good with a great game at Chelsea, just as a majority of fans — rather than a minority of ultra-critics — were starting to seriously question him.
Remember that Marcos Rojo was a favourite to be sold by armchair managers at the start of last season, yet he went on to establish himself as a player of United quality. Marouane Fellaini was written off by many people, who are not accountable for their words. He’s also become an important player.
Lindelof might succeed at United, he might not. For all the aforementioned players who went on to have great careers, there are plenty who started poorly and, for a variety of reasons, never really got going. That’s football; it’s the same at every club.
Signing players, no matter how much they’ve been scouted, is not an exact science. Do you think Real Madrid are happy with how James Rodriguez worked out? Or Barcelona regarding Arda Turan? Both had loftier reputations than Lindelof at Benfica, a club with a track record of selling quality.
In recent years at United, hopes for Memphis Depay, Shinji Kagawa, Angel Di Maria, Morgan Schneiderlin and many more were not realised. Players suspected Schneiderlin wasn’t better than others who’d been sold, such as Darren Fletcher.
Professionals see what their peers are made of every single day; they can’t say it publicly any more than you can come out and criticise one of your own colleagues, but word gets out and Schneiderlin wasn’t the only one found wanting among United’s 2015 arrivals. Who expected Bastian Schweinsteiger to be ineffective? Though perhaps that had more to do with Louis van Gaal’s anti-football?
There are respected voices inside Old Trafford, who think Axel Tuanzebe was a better fit for central defence than Lindelof, but the voice that matters belongs to Jose Mourinho. He lives by the decisions he makes and has got a better record in the transfer market than most.
A few months making Lindelof better — mentally and physically — will do the player no harm. Further, while he’s hardly shone, he’s not had a stinker in the three Champions League games that’s he’s played, all of which United have won. He’s not playing regularly in the league because his manager doesn’t think he’s better than other players, but injuries mean he’s now getting minutes.
Lindelof’s howler at Huddersfield looked as awkward as when Gerard Pique flung himself at a ball and missed vs. Bolton a decade ago. That also brought defeat at an unfashionable neighbor and I heard fans saying he didn’t look “United quality” as they left the away end; Pique now has 27 trophies, including all the big ones for club and country. That’s more than Manchester City have won in their entire history.
So a little patience is required with Lindelof, a year to settle into his new life. The criticism he’s getting now from fans aghast that he might have a few bad games can make him stronger, but it could get worse before it gets better. Vidic and Evra, for example, started so poorly that they were sent to play for the reserves at Blackburn.
“We played 45 minutes when Rene Muelensteen, the manager, took us off saying: ‘Enough,'” said Vidic. “Patrice and I showered and said: ‘What have we done coming here?’ People were saying: ‘Who are these two guys? If they can’t play for the reserves, how can they play for the first team?’ It was a difficult time, but we both worked hard, improved and established ourselves. It was a lesson for us that start. You have to work hard in life. Patrice and I had a tough beginning in Manchester. We were not ready to play for United, both physically and in terms of experience in England. We struggled in training.”
Evra was staying in a hotel with his wife — neither spoke English — and 2-month old son. His first game was in the Manchester derby at City. He lasted 45 minutes and United were beaten 4-1; talk about being thrown in at the deep end.
Gary Pallister had a similarly uninspired start after a big-money move from Middlesbrough in 1989: “I’d just joined and I wanted the fans on my side and losing at home to Norwich wasn’t best way to do it. But I was blamed for a goal which wasn’t my fault.”
A few weeks later, United lost 5-1 to City at Maine Road.
“The roof fell in,” said Pallister, “We actually started that game really well, playing lovely football. Then everything City hit went in. I didn’t have the best of games and knew that I should have done better. To lose like that to City wasn’t good enough and I’d say it was the lowest point in my whole career.”
Pallister was the most expensive player in Britain at the time and drove back to Middlesbrough to be with his family.
“Thank God I had them around me,” he said. “I sought solace at home that weekend, but I was confronted with a menacing situation when I returned to training at The Cliff on Monday. There was no security and fans were free to wander in. When I walked back to my car after training, three or four big United fans were waiting for me. As I moved towards my car, they approached me. They didn’t look like they wanted an autograph. Instead, they told me that I wasn’t fit to wear the shirt, that United shouldn’t have sold Paul McGrath and that I was a f—ing disgrace. It was very intimidating. I said nothing. What could I say? We’d just been whopped by City. A few of the other players got abuse from the same lads. … With all the security at Carrington, players now wouldn’t believe that was possible, but it was a very real threat.”
The world has changed and United’s current squad would never face such a situation at security-heavy Carrington. The only threats Lindelof is likely to get are from faceless online critics, but he’s under pressure all the same. At Benfica he was known by teammates as “Ice Man” for his ability to stay cool. He’ll need that quality in the weeks and months ahead.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.