First Published in the Manchester Evening Newshttps://i2-prod.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/incoming/article19619299.ece/ALTERNATES/s615/0_GettyImages-1296070802.jpg
For a club with a mythical following in excess of a billion people, Manchester United are still drawn to their longstanding fanbases in Ireland and Scandinavia.
Before the money-spinning tours that prioritised finances over football, United’s go-to pre-season destination was invariably Scandinavia or Ireland and, after years of indifference, United have pointedly acknowledged their following in the territories. They have tagged on Scandinavian friendlies in three of their last four pre-season tours and nearly 52,000 fans clicked through the turnstiles of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium to watch United beat Sampdoria in 2017.
The attachment these European regions have with United has left followers protective of countrymen in red. For a club with a strong Celtic affinity, United have had a dearth of Irishmen in their squad since Roy Keane left in 2005 (Robbie Brady was the last to appear from the Republic) and Ulstermen saw little wrong in Paddy McNair even though he was operating above his brief across two seasons.
Some Scandinavians are precious about criticism of Victor Lindelof, a dubious performer over the last 18 months. The most engaging correspondence this correspondent receives is from Scandinavian readers lamenting Lindelof’s player rating or raging against an apparent ‘agenda’ against United’s best player in 2018-19.
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Manchester United secured a vital 1-0 victory over Burnley on Tuesday night to go top of the Premier League.
Paul Pogba scored the decisive goal in a hard-fought contest at Turf Moor, meaning United are now three points clear of Liverpool — who they face this weekend at Anfield.
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Objectively, Lindelof has underwhelmed next to Harry Maguire but the numbers have reflected favourably on him: in two of the three Premier League matches Lindelof missed last season, United lost, and his demotion for the Tottenham hammering resulted in the nadir of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign.
There is the mitigation of the recurring back problem that has plagued Lindelof for the last 15 months and, although he trained on Monday, he was not at Turf Moor on Tuesday. Maguire has started in 55 league games out of 55 since his £80million arrival.
Maguire’s fee and captaincy status protect him. Patrice Evra, often impetuous with his punditry, suggested Solskjaer consider dropping him in the wake of the Tottenham trouncing and that argument has been touted by Lindelof’s countrymen. The correspondence is largely articulate and reasonable, unlike on Twitter, where one is easily dragged into a cesspit.
Certain sections of the media in Norway and Sweden have a habit of quoting English reports out of context or simply settling for a negative sound bite and that has skewed the analysis of Lindelof and Solskjaer. Others reporting remotely and those on the ground in Manchester are more balanced.
The inbox has been devoid of emails from Scandinavians over the last fortnight. Lindelof has missed four of United’s last five games and Maguire was culpable for letting the ball bounce past him and then off John Stones for City’s Carabao Cup winner.
That aside, Maguire has appeared more secure next to an athletic centre-back in Eric Bailly, a partnership Tottenham torpedoed just over three months ago. Bailly managed four successive starts for the first time since September 2017 until he was dropped for the returning Lindelof against City and, despite an inevitable injury against Watford, recovered to start at Burnley.
Burnley are still in single figures for league goals this term but United had not recorded a shutout away from home in the league all season until their slugfest at Turf Moor. Bailly blocked two goalbound efforts in either half and is looking more like the bargain buy of 2016-17.
“At 1-0, you have to see out one or two big moments and we did,” Solskjaer said. “We were maybe a bit fortunate, they pegged us back and you expect that here at Turf Moor, with the quality of players they’ve got in the box.
“But we put our bodies on the line, blocked, defended, stuck our head in like Luke [Shaw] did. The mentality is getting better, so I’m very pleased with the spirit.”
There is a more confident air about Maguire when he is partnered by a lithe centre half and the irony is Bailly was the ‘doubt’ going into the Burnley fixture, with the expectation Lindelof would return. Suddenly, the 26-year-old Bailly’s brittleness has been inherited by Lindelof in a Freaky Friday body swap.
(Image: 2021 Getty Images)
Solskjaer’s Scandinavian solidarity with Lindelof has continued amid pressure from Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe over the last month but there is no justifiable cause to recall the Swede at Liverpool. Bailly is quicker and more muscular than Lindelof and has regained form, improving Maguire in the process.
A cynic might note Bailly’s improvement has emerged just as he enters the final 18 months of his contract. United are keen to discard Marcos Rojo this month and, provided there is panacea for the permanently injured Phil Jones, offload him in the summer. Sam Allardyce or Antonio Conte might be worth a call before February, though.
United are ushering in speedier centre-backs, with Teden Mengi back in first-team training, and they will finally be rid of Rojo, out of contract in June, next season at the latest. Their defensive record is the worst of the top 11 and United have sieved as many goals as Fulham, third from bottom.
Bailly might not be the answer but he is the blueprint, and United retain interest in Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano. They are unlikely to invest in an Irish or Scandinavian centre-back, though.