To mark the one-year anniversary of Victor Lindelof joining Manchester United from Benfica, we spoke to Swedish football expert and former Academy graduate Bojan Djordjic, gathering his unique analysis of his countryman’s first 12 months at Old Trafford…
Of course it was. It doesn’t matter which country you are from, going to Manchester United is huge news and especially with Victor because his career had taken him from the third tier of Swedish football to Benfica B, then into their first team, then the national team and next to United. His career was going up and up.
Had he been expected to join a big club and potentially in England?
Benfica is a huge club when you look at the silverware they’ve won and players they’ve produced. When you move from Sweden, fight your way into the first team and play alongside Luisao, like Victor did, then you know the player must have quality. Victor was relatively unknown when he went out there as well, but he played a lot of games, forced his way into the Swedish national team and then, of course, everybody except me realised this kid had something really special.
I would say that the media in England have been really tough on Victor, but I also expected that when he moved for big money and people expected him to start every game straight away. When he made the mistake at Huddersfield, I knew it would be tough for him because people still haven’t let that go. Was he the only one who made mistakes that season? He became a scapegoat. But I remember games when he was brilliant, like Brighton at home and Watford away, and supporters who watch football saw those positive sparks. But others who decided in October he was going to have a bad season were never going to change their minds. That’s what I sometimes don’t like in England – people are too quick to judge players and you have to give youngsters more time.
I always knew he was mentally strong. Two weeks after that mistake, he put the national jersey on and played two World Cup play-off games against Italy without conceding a goal, sending his country to Russia 2018. Even at 23, he is thinking about tomorrow and not yesterday. Those two games helped him. He was brilliant alongside Andreas Granqvist and we went through because of them.
Do you feel he got better as the season went on?
I think he progressed and he still needs time. It is a tough task at United and, of course, I want him to do well because he is my fellow countryman. For me, a big part of his development is having a leader alongside him. At Benfica, he had Luisao and with Sweden, he has the captain, Granqvist. I would love to see him with Eric Bailly at United. That combination would help his progress, massively.
It is clear that Jose Mourinho trusts him, particularly when teams allow us to play the ball out from the back…
Of course he does. Victor is good with his feet and in England you have to defend a lot more than you do in Portugal, where you have the ball all of the time. But he has shown for Sweden that he can do both. We had France and Holland in the qualifying group, finished second and then beat Italy to reach the World Cup. That means he didn’t make mistakes at the back, like people go on about at Huddersfield. Is he the only player to make a mistake? Bigger players have made bigger mistakes and have still come back. That makes you a winner and makes you a Manchester United player.
Listen, we can only hope and speculate. But they were unique and special players, so I don’t think it is fair to speak about them when we discuss Victor. I just hope he has the opportunity to play with Eric Bailly, because injury meant they couldn’t last season. In my opinion, that’s a great combination, with somebody who is strong in the duals and another who brings the ball out, and reads the game well. Football has changed. Unfortunately, people always say ‘we want a proper defender’ but those have gone out of the game. You have to be a modern defender and Victor is exactly that.
Do you expect Victor and Sweden to have a positive World Cup?
The most important thing for Sweden was qualifying and the team also needs to perform well, but nobody expected us to progress in the first place because of the change in manager, the transition in the squad and Zlatan retiring. Expectations for the team are low in a way, but we have South Korea and Mexico in the fight to finish second behind Germany in the group. As for Victor, he is guaranteed to start at centre-back alongside Granqvist, who is the latest Golden Ball award winner here in Sweden. They always start together: Victor handles the ball and Andreas is strong in the tackle.
And then we pack our bags and go home [laughs]! But what a challenge that would be, especially when you have nothing to lose against what is arguably the best side in the world at the moment – not only with the starting XI, but the players on the bench as well. Some players never get an opportunity to play on a stage like that, so it should be embraced. Of course, Sweden also perform when everybody writes us off against bigger nations. Our problem is when the other team sits back and lets us have the ball. Our better games were against France, Holland and Italy, so you never know. I’m fascinated to see how it all unfolds.
Will Victor return to United with added confidence and momentum?
Definitely! Victor played a lot of games in his first season at United, he is happy at Old Trafford and, after the World Cup, he will come back for pre-season with a determination to be even better.
Ibra expressed an interest in coming out of international retirement for the World Cup, but was omitted from the squad and the Swedish media reportedly claimed the team is better off without the attention that he brings. What are your thoughts on that?
I have always been Team Zlatan and it is just ridiculous when people make comments like that. The man is the best-ever player from Sweden, our top-scorer with the national team, captain for the last six years and has played for the biggest clubs in the world. Would he have won all of those titles if he was a problem? We had him at United and you could see how much he was liked. For one season only, everybody loved him, admired him and respected him.
How disappointed were you that Zlatan’s United career was ultimately curtailed by that terrible knee injury?
Honestly, when I think about that injury I still hurt inside! There was that long ball over the top, with just a few seconds to go, and then his knee goes. If anybody could have come back it was him, but then you had to look at his age and sadly it wasn’t to be. What he did in his first season was special and I am just sad we didn’t get him at United earlier, because he would have been even more iconic.