Much will be expected of Victor Lindelof, Manchester United’s new £31m signing from Benfica. But the defender is being backed to succeed. Adam Bate spoke to the coaches who know him best to find out what United can expect from their new boy.
It takes skill to play for a club like Manchester United. But Jose Mourinho knows that it also requires rather more than that. That’s why he pushes his players. Why he demands that they learn to solve problems on the pitch. Why he wants to see them thrive in adversity.
Victor Lindelof will not be found wanting.
United’s new £31m defender arrives from Portuguese champions Benfica but he was made in Vasteras, a small city just over an hour’s drive from Stockholm. It is a place better known for its bandy team – a popular winter sport that’s a variant of ice hockey.
Now it is also known as the place where one of the world’s most expensive defenders began his journey. For the skinny teenager known affectionately as Vigge, it was at Vasteras SK where he first showed the mental qualities that he would need in order to succeed.
Kalle Granath was his coach at VSK, the man who gave him his debut in their promotion-winning season of 2010. He has seen plenty of talented players in his time and Lindelof is clearly among them. But it was not his skills that set him apart. It was his hunger to improve.
“He joined the squad as a tiny 15-year-old kid,” Granath tells Sky Sports. “But he kept on working and improving on every aspect of his game, physically, tactically and technically. And then, halfway through the 2010 season, he earned his place in the starting eleven.
“He never once complained and was always willing to try any crazy idea that I came up with in training. He just kept adding to his arsenal of skills. My strongest memory of him is his willingness to see everything thrown at him as a new challenge.
“I don’t remember him ever saying that he could not do this or that it was not possible. He always wanted to try it. His strength was his ability to improve and adapt to new situations. He quickly understood what he needed to do to best solve a problem.
“I have trained quite a few players who were youth internationals in Sweden but he was the one who understood the whole package of what was needed in order to take the next step. I think he understood that very early on for a young talent.”
Granath was not the only one who spotted this. VSK’s sporting director Haci Aslan did the deal that took Lindelof to Benfica, soon recognising his unusual combination of intelligence and hard work – even as the club were being relegated back to the third tier in 2011.
“He was a 16-year-old boy starting in the Swedish second division but he played with such calm that you would think he was 30 years old,” Aslan tells Sky Sports. “He was very clever and always solved the problems as they occurred. Give him the tools and he does the job.
“He was that guy who always came in before training started and did extra training on his own. Then he stayed after training to do more extra work in order to be even better. He was never that guy who thought he had done enough. He was a young Viking.
“Of course, I did not know he would be the star he is today but I knew that if anyone was going to make it then it would be Vigge. His attitude made me believe in him more than the other good youngsters we had. Most of them still play in Sweden today. Vigge does not.”
Those early appearances for VSK came as an adventurous right-back. Indeed, he was still occupying that position at the 2015 European Under-21 Championships at which Sweden were victories thanks to Lindelof’s penalty shootout winner against Portugal in the final.
But it was another role that he filled with the national team that could hold the key to why he is regarded so highly today. For the Sweden age-group sides that he often captained, Lindelof frequently found himself asked to play further forwards in midfield.
“We had a strong right-back the same age as Victor called Emil Krafth, who is now at Bologna,” Sweden’s current Under-19 coach, Claes Eriksson, tells Sky Sports. “We could not play two right-backs so I had to put Victor in midfield. He played a lot of games there.
“I think it developed his technical skills. Now he is a very all-round player who can play any position at the back or the midfield. But I always thought he could become a good centre-back because he reads the game so well and can see opportunities.”
Echoes of those midfield days remain in his role as Benfica’s ball-playing centre-back. After a long apprenticeship with the B team, he is a popular figure – man of the match in the Lisbon derby at Sporting last year, he scored the equaliser there in the most recent fixture in April.
Back at the Estadio da Luz, it became customary for a Swedish flag to be found behind the goal in Lindelof’s honour. Now, after only 48 league games, comes the move to Manchester United. It’s one that makes him a hero back home in Vasteras for more reasons than one.
“Vasteras SK have been a team for the last 10 to 15 years who have been having big economic problems,” explains Aslan. “During the last three years without those fans who have made collections for the team totalling almost €200,000 the club would not exist.
“That money has helped the club financially until the day Vigge makes his big move.” The sell-on fee agreed with Benfica changes things. “Now, from being a team who cannot pay their players any money, they can become one of Sweden’s four richest clubs,” he adds.
But Lindelof is far more than a mere cash cow. What is apparent is that everyone who has worked with this young player wishes him well. Eriksson calls him a “fantastic personality” and a “very nice person” with the “right attitude” to go to the very top.
Granath too has “purely positive” memories. “I don’t think he will talk a lot about how great he is,” he says. “Instead, he will try to show it on the field. And he keeps on getting better.” And Aslan? “Jose has got an exceptional played who will make United much better,” he adds.
“It is not a coincidence that United want Vigge.”
In fact, the man made in Vasteras seems made for Jose Mourinho too.