21st December 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Despite still being sixth in the Premier League table, Manchester United appear to have reconciled their high performance levels with the kind of results they feel they have deserved in recent weeks.
Throughout the Red Devils run of disappointing outcomes with draw after draw, and narrow leads thrown away almost weekly Jose Mourinho insisted that his side were playing well and that their results would soon turn around.
And he was right, the win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford earlier this month has been followed up by back-to-back away victories against Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion. United's league position has not improved in this time, but they have narrowed the gap to the Champions League qualification places, dragging themselves right back into the running for a top four finish.
One of the key factors in the 20-time champions' turnaround has been the somewhat surprisingly solid displays put in by Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo at the heart of the defence. The unlikely double act of the often-injured England international and the error-prone Argentinian have expertly deputised for the injured Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling.
But United are still reportedly in the market for defensive reinforcements when the transfer window re-opens in January, and the latest reports suggest that a pair of Benfica defenders, Victor Lindelöf and Nelson Semedo, top Mourinho's wish-list.
Portuguese newspaper O Jogo reported earlier this week that the Eagles' president LuÃs Filipe Vieira was on his way to England to discuss a potential deal for 22-year-old Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelöf.
And yesterday, another Portuguese outlet, Record, claimed that a €45 million agreement had been reached over the January transfer of the 11-cap international colleague of Zlatan Ibrahimovi?, and that United are now negotiating with Vieira over the possibility of also bringing in Benfica right-back Nelson Semedo in the summer.
Comfortable on the ball and tough in the tackle, Lindelöf is very much in the mould of the modern centre-back.
His confidence in possession enables him to receive the ball in tight situations and instigate attacking manoeuvres from the back. To do this, he is able to call upon an excellent range of passing which often sees him playing accurate vertical balls into high, wide zones to the wingers or overlapping full-backs.
Defensively, Lindelöf is excellent in one-on-one situations, where his concentration sees him fixated on the ball and ignoring the tricks and feints of his opponent. He times tackles well and always looks to pick out a team-mate in an advanced position once the ball has been won.
His ability to also play at right-back will undoubtedly have attracted Mourinho.
The young defender is strong in the air and, standing at 6ft 2ins, possesses all of the requisite physicality to thrive in the Premier League.
Perhaps the biggest weakness that remains in Lindelöf 's game is his positional sense. He is occasionally caught under the ball from crosses and does not always place himself in the optimum position within the penalty area when the opposition are looking to attack from out wide. This is a flaw that will be ironed out of his game with experience and proper coaching.
On the few occasions where he is caught out of position as the opposition advances toward goal, Lindelöf 's tremendous pace helps him recover in time to snuff out the danger.
With a pass accuracy of 88.8 percent, Lindelöf picks out a colleague more regularly than any of United's current centre-backs Bailly's pass completion rate of 88.1 percent is closest.
Defensively, the 22-year-old has won more tackles (12), made more interceptions (19) and more blocks than any United centre-back this term.
Former United winger and fellow Swede Jesper Blomqvist, who was part of the Red Devils treble winning 1998-99 season, has likened Lindelöf to a couple of defensive stars of Old Trafford's recent history: "He's quick, confident with the ball, likes to play and is very strong," he told the Manchester Evening News. "For United fans, I think the best comparisons would be with Rio Ferdinand and Ronny Johnsen."
Lindelöf's Benfica contract is believed to contain a €30 million release clause which becomes active next summer. But United are so desperate to land their man as soon as possible that they are reportedly willing to pay over the odds to get a deal done in January.
Antonio Valencia has been a regular starter at right-back for United this season, despite having spent most of his career as a winger.
And the 31-year-old Ecuadorian has performed admirably, offering an attacking outlet when breaking forward while also diligently carrying out his defensive duties.
But it would appear that Mourinho is on the lookout for a long-term solution on the right side of his defence, and Nelson "Nelsinho" Semedo, according to reports, has been earmarked.
The 23-year-old full-back has impressed at the EstÃ¡dio da Luz since graduating from Benfica's B team to make his senior debut last season. He has been a fixture of the first XI this term and has caught the eye with his supreme athleticism, speed and technical quality.
Having both started 14 league games, Nelsinho's and Valencia's stats make for interesting comparison. The Lisbon-born player has scored one goal and registered three assists, while the former Wigan Athletic man has yet to directly contribute to a league goal for United.
But Valencia has a better pass accuracy, with 84 percent of his passes finding a team-mate to Semedo's 80 percent, and is more successful in take-ons, getting by his opponent 68.5 percent of the time to the Benfica star's 53.8 percent.
Defensively, Semedo has won more tackles (28 to 24) but Valencia has made more interceptions (again, 28 to 24) and blocks (5 to 4). The fact that his metrics match so closely with the United player's is evidence of Nelsinho's undoubted quality.
One area in which he is able to open up a new dimension of attacking possibilities where Valencia cannot, is when cutting inside onto his left foot. The 23-year-old, unlike his Old Trafford counterpart, is adept at striking the ball powerfully and accurately with both feet as evidenced by a sublime 25-yard, top-corner strike against Besiktas in the Champions League last month making him a threat both out wide and centrally.
Semedo, who is also believed to be on Bayern Munich's radar, has a whopping €60 million release clause in his contract; if United want him, he won't come cheap.