Manchester United’s season was about 10 seconds old when Victor Lindelof misjudged his first header and sent the ball in the wrong direction. No metaphors there, then, for a campaign United began rather shambolically, seemingly heading in the wrong way. Nor, indeed, for an afternoon when Lindelof played a part in three goals, all scored by Crystal Palace.
The Swede was luckless as well as hapless, unfortunate his hand was ruled to be in an unnatural position for Palace’s controversial, and twice-taken, penalty. The temptation was to joke that Lindelof had been in an unnatural position for 90 minutes, even if it would have been a cheap gag. He is a career centre-back, just one who did not look it when Palace’s 4 x 100m relay team of Jeffrey Schlupp, Wilfried Zaha, Jordan Ayew and Andros Townsend ran at him.
“I don’t want to point the finger at individuals,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer magnanimously, and he had a point as all of United’s defence were eviscerated by Palace’s electric counter-attackers. They are not alone, and Palace’s speed on the break is a reason why they have spent the last few seasons claiming the scalps of the elite on the road.
A 90-minute horror show from an understandably rusty rearguard felt an outlier. How poor are United’s defence? In one respect, not that poor at all. Only Liverpool and Manchester City conceded fewer goals last season, only just and in a campaign when David de Gea had some erratic moments. In another, few think Solskjaer’s defence is remotely comparable with Jurgen Klopp’s. As ever with United, the issues of spending are never far from the surface, but put Aaron Wan-Bissaka in for Timothy Fosu-Mensah and the back four and goalkeeper would have a combined cost of over £200 million, second only to City’s.
There is a typically United situation where money has been spent and many feel more needs to be spent. Money is the problem and money is the solution. A club with a mixed record in the transfer market are urged to buy. “We need players,” said Luke Shaw, though the first arrival could be an alternative to him, in Porto left-back Alex Telles.
“Until they get a centre-back in who can run and defend one-on-one, you’re never going to win a league,” said a blunt Gary Neville; Virgil van Dijk can do that and Lindelof can’t. Neville speaks from a position of experience and expertise: at his peak, Gary Pallister could defend one-on-one. Jaap Stam could. Until age slowed them, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic could. The right-back Wan-Bissaka, whose speed and tackling makes him United’s best defender one-on-one, was only a substitute but in the centre Harry Maguire’s weakness is his speed on the turn and Lindelof looked vulnerable when isolated. There has been no genuinely high-class partnership since Ferdinand and Vidic.
Social media featured many a quip wondering how Lindelof had caught a thief in his native Sweden in the close season. He made for a convenient scapegoat. He is a symbolic figure. Lindelof has had three seasons at Old Trafford, a fine 2018-19 flanked by less notable campaigns. He is one of five centre-backs signed in six summers, with Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Eric Bailly and Maguire. Only Rojo stands out as a failure. Blind was excellent in 2015-16 but did not meet Jose Mourinho’s definition of a central defender. Bailly, if he could ever stay fit for long enough, has the ability to dovetail with Maguire. Absence may have made the heart grow fonder but increasingly, many wonder if exiling Chris Smalling to Roma was wise.
Which, in turn, illustrates the unresolved issues at the back. He and Phil Jones were Sir Alex Ferguson’s succession planning. Smalling has been owned by United for a decade; Jones – in theory, anyway – is in his testimonial year. For all the mockery each attracts, neither has been a failure at Old Trafford. But nor, by the standards United have traditionally demanded, have they been a success. Cases of unfulfilled potential are not bad players but not quite good enough. Like Lindelof, they have occupied the no-man’s land in between, sometimes exposed and embarrassed, damned by comparisons with their illustrious predecessors and their title-winning peers, forever supposedly making way when – if – United need sign an upgrade. But, United being United, the focus is often on more glamorous, more attacking recruits. United can target Jadon Sancho but, on Saturday, they could not stop Sancho-style forwards with pace and trickery.