Generation Next is our regular feature on Just Football profiling the best young talents in the world. And here’s another to keep an eye on – Atalanta’s bustling midfielder Franck Kessie… Last summer, when Genoa former coach Gian Piero Gasperini made the move to Atalanta, after seven wonderful years spent in Liguria (interjected by spells […]
Have you ever heard of Västerås? You’d be forgiven if you haven’t. A city in central Sweden, it boasts a population of around 150,000. It is also home to the football club Våsterås SK Fotboll.
They do not play in the more well-known Allsvenskan, the Swedish top tier, or even the Superettan, the second tier, but the Division 1 Norra, the third tier. With a stadium capacity of just 7,044, the small club and city are hardly known to the rest of the world. That will not last for long.
The reason for that would be the emergence of Victor Jörgen Nilsson Lindelöf, or just Victor Lindelöf, the player everybody is talking about this January transfer window.
Sweden are not a footballing powerhouse, yet they did produce one of the footballing icons of the 2000s: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Everyone knows about Zlatan. His retirement after Euro 2016 was proclaimed as the end of an era. That is the truth, but it could be good in a way. Sweden’s national team had become utterly dependant on Ibrahimovic for goals and leadership. His retirement opens up the opportunity for Sweden to be a more compact, if less spectacular side. And if anyone has the shoulders to carry the new-look side, odds are it could be Lindelöf.
His ascent from a small town in Sweden to the champions of Portugal is intriguing, his transfer between the two clubs unusual, just like his name, pronounced Linde-love. The centre-back made his debut as a 16-year old in a 3-0 win over BK Forward back in Sweden. Naturally, his club realised they had a gem on their hands.
As with all gems, there is a plus and a minus: you may have a potential world-class talent on your hands, but enjoy him while he lasts because he won’t be there for long. Lindelöf helped Västerås win promotion to the Superettan during his breakthrough season (they were relegated back the next season). Promptly, the vultures began to swirl.
The youngster enjoyed two seasons in Sweden and 41 appearances before signing for Portuguese giants Benfica in 2012. A wise choice, for Benfica are one of the best places around for youth development. Lindelöf would stay at Benfica B while he matured and developed, and prepare for his chance. That chance came in 2016.
The Västerås chapter hasn’t fully closed however. The nominal transfer fee was around 60,000 euros with numerous add-on clauses as is customary for transfers these days. One of those clauses was met last April: Benfica had to pay 250,000 euros after Lindelöf made 10 first-team starts in the Primeira Liga and Champions League.
Benfica however declined to pay, citing the agreement expired upon the signing of a new contract in 2015 after Lindelöf broke into the first team. The complaint went to FIFA’s Player Status Committee and is still pending. Västerås need the money to move into positive equity and clear their debts. More controversy could arise if Lindelöf moves to another club, for one of the clauses stipulates that Västerås get 20% of the sell-on fee.
Lindelöf was linked with a move to Middlesborough in January 2016 (in hindsight, it is good he did not move), and is now strongly linked with Manchester United for a potential fee between £35-50 million including add-ons. The saga has dragged on, and Lindelöf would want it closed as soon as possible. There is more to his story than just Västerås.
Before his first-team chance though, he had an excellent UEFA European Under-21 Championship. Drafted in as an injury replacement, he was an integral part of Sweden’s success and converted the winning penalty in the shootout in the final versus Portugal. Nerves of steel indeed. He was named in the Team of the Tournament, a sign of things to come.
At Benfica, the Swede knocked on the doors for a long time, and the aforementioned mooted move to Middlesbrough may have become a reality if club captain Luisão and Lisandro Lopez, both centre-backs, were not injured around the time of the proposed move.
In that alternate reality, his agent Per Jonnson would have engineered a loan to the high-flying Championship side and Lindelöf would have played against the likes of Bolton. He would have had game-time, but not at a high level.
Lindelöf remained patient and showed no displeasure at being in the ‘B’ side. With the injuries, that was vindicated. He was thrown into the deep end, as Benfica had games versus title rivals Porto and Sporting, as well as a Champions League Round of 16 tie versus Zenit. Lindelöf smoothly displaced club legend Luisão and was flawless against Porto and Zenit. Against Sporting he received the Man of the Match. Pretty impressive for a rookie, right?
His introduction ensured no hiccups in Benfica’s season and fired them to the title. What’s more, he got to face off against the mighty Bayern too and put in impressive displays. No wonder his teammates call him Iceman.
The 22-year-old’s Euro 2016 was short-lived as Sweden were knocked out in the group stage, but he was efficient, and did himself no harm with his performances.
This season, Lindelöf has 1350 minutes of gametime in the league and is Benfica’s first-choice centre-back, partnering either Luisão or Lopez, both older and more experienced compatriots. Part of a youthful defence with Nelson Semedo and Alex Grimaldo, Lindelöf is gaining considerable experience.
In Europe, Benfica leaked ten goals, including a horror showing versus Napoli (four goals) and a terrible collapse versus Besiktas (two late goals). Benfica are now drawn against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last 16, and if Lindelöf stays he will have his hands full containing the likes of Reus, Aubameyang and Dembele. A tough challenge, but one he is fully equipped to handle.
This radar gives a good picture of the defender Lindelöf’s capabilities. Good on the ball, an efficient passer with not many long balls, fairly good aerially and a high amount of blocks and interceptions.
Two things stand out: a pass success percentage of 90% and a low number of tackles. This describes his defending style and suggests how composed he is – he does not rely on tackles to win back the ball and rarely gets carded. Again, an example to show why he is Iceman.
At 6 foot 2, he is physically imposing. His versatility is another key trait – in addition to centre-back, he can also fill in at right-back and defensive midfield, something which will endear him to managers. Excellent and calm on the ball, he’s combined strength with pace, and in the process established himself as one of the best defenders in the Primeira Liga, and the cream of the crop in his age group.
Furthermore, in the passing radar provided by Global Soccer Network, the extent of his passing can be seen:
Benfica are a dominant side in Portugal and are expected to have the majority of possession in most games. With a tendency to make more passes forward (201) than backward (58) or sideways (23), the youngster is an outlet to build from the back. He will suit most footballing sides from this evidence, though his positioning can improve.
The main reason Lindelöf has catapulted into the limelight in recent weeks is because of speculation over a possible transfer to Manchester United, an iconic club. Fans all over the world have been scurrying for information on the Swede. Who is he, how does he play, will he be a good fit etc.
Specific to United, the Swede’s calmness will allow him to adjust smoothly and he will add another style to the side. It is unlikely he will be overawed by the magnitude of Manchester United. And a certain Swede has already rubberstamped his approval on the potential buy.
Ibrahimovic believes his compatriot is ready for a big club, and that is as good a recommendation as you can get. Lindelöf has played with Ibrahimovic in the Swedish national side at the Euros this year, the first stage where he impressed footballing fans. Expect him to be a great part of the future, and he could also be joined by fellow Benfica starlet Nelson Semedo at Old Trafford, too.
While the deal has not gone through yet, there is a reasonable chance it will happen by the end of January. Why? Let’s go back to the Västerås sub-plot at the beginning of this piece. One of the obstacles to the deal has reportedly been the payment of the original clause as well as the 20% cut of the transfer fee.
Benfica were reportedly trying to hold United to ransom, perhaps to avoid paying their share. However, the lack of urgency from England led to fears of the deal getting scuppered and as a result, a swift conclusion is being sought out.
The Västerås chairman, B.Å. Nilsson has reportedly told O Jogo that they have an agreement with Benfica over their cut in a potential deal, which will be far smaller than originally intended. Considering the Swedish club’s last home match had an attendance of just 385, any re-negotiated fee would still be enormously beneficial, even if not the full 20% agreed (7.6 million euros if the overall fee is 38 million euros).
It appears that United’s threats have accelerated the deal, and that Västerås are the bigger men in this wrangle. It is only Benfica who appear poorly in the media for refusing to negotiate with United and attempting to get United to pay part of the money. In the end though, a gentlemanly agreement between all parties should lead to a happy ending.
Even after taking this into account, if Jose Mourinho resists buying Lindelöf in the winter, a deal may still be possible in the summer. The partnership of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones has allayed fears of a lack of defensive cover lately, even with the departure of Eric Bailly to the African Cup of Nations. If Lindelöf joins, the odds are he’d establish himself as the starter quickly.
A potential partnership of Bailly and Lindelöf, flanked by Luke Shaw and Semedo, would establish United’s defensive line for years to come.
If he does not join United though, he will join another big club in the summer. Whoever lands Victor Lindelof will get a player with the right mentality and character – something as important as ability. He is a leader. The transfer fee will not be relevant. Fans will love him. When the move happens, the kid from tiny Västerås will have truly gone global.
Words: Rahul Warrier