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Why Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire have finally given Man Utd a defensive combination to treasure

James Ducker
Lindelof clearly enjoyed having £80m signing Maguire alongside him last weekend against Chelsea - Manchester United

Even now, 1,925 days since he last partnered Rio Ferdinand in central defence for Manchester United, Nemanja Vidic still chuckles at how they used to send team-mates up the wall with their constant chattering on the pitch.

“It’s funny, I remember our team-mates saying, ‘Stop talking you two! You’re always talking and we can’t listen any more!’” Vidic reflected recently. “It was crazy how much we talked on the pitch about different situations.

“Defenders depend on each other. New generations have to understand that one without the other, you can’t play the best.”

The Vidic/Ferdinand axis was not an instant hit. It was a partnership that required time and work to develop into one of the most revered in Europe but its lasting success has cast a long shadow over Old Trafford in the years since its break-up, once and for all, in 2014.

United have had neither the quality - of body or mind - nor the consistency of selection at the back to get vaguely close to a pairing to rival it, which is why the quiet buzz of excitement around Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof now is so understandable.

Maguire impressed on his debut for United Credit: Getty Images

Maguire impressed on his debut in the 4-0 opening weekend win over Chelsea and Lindelof clearly enjoyed having the £80 million signing from Leicester alongside him. It was a showing that offered plenty of grounds for encouragement, albeit no guarantee of long-term joy, and Wolverhampton Wanderers are likely to ask more questions at bogey ground Molineux tonight.

Very much like Ferdinand and Vidic, Maguire and Lindelof will need time to hone their understanding but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes he has struck upon something and wants no reason to break up a partnership that, in combination with goalkeeper David De Gea, he hopes will become United’s bedrock for years to come.

“I think good players can play together,” the United manager said. “We’ve only played once so we want the partnership [between Maguire and Lindelof] to develop with David at the back.

Tuanzebe is likely to be back up to Lindelof and Maguire Credit: Reuters

“We want to play out from the back but we’ve got good centre-backs around as well. Axel [Tuanzebe] is knocking on the door, he wants to play. I hope Victor and Harry don’t give me a reason to change - no injuries, suspensions or lack of concentration. They can both play, they read the game really well.

“Harry with his presence in the box, it’s great for any centre-back to have that presence next to them. I’m sure Victor will enjoy that.”

Injuries, suspensions, poor lapses - they are all reasons why successive managers have continually chopped and changed at the back with increasingly frustrating consequences but, with Solskjaer determined to play out from the back, the onus on De Gea, Maguire and Lindelof is obvious. It is also why Tuanzebe, the 21-year-old academy graduate who impressed on loan at Aston Villa in the Championship last season, is now effectively first-choice back-up to Maguire and Lindelof ahead of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, none of whom were on the bench against Chelsea, and Eric Bailly, who is out until Christmas after knee surgery.

Solskjaer did not deny that Tuanzebe was now third choice, just as he carefully sidestepped the question when asked if Chris Smalling was good enough on the ball to be able to play out from the back. Gareth Southgate evidently felt not and dropped Smalling from the England squad as a result.  

“I’m sure both Chris and Phil and Marcos and Axel will be capable of playing here,” Solskjaer said, diplomatically. “That’s why they’re here. I’ve got no reason to pick players that I don’t think are going to fit into the way we are going to play.

“Pre-season was a great chance for Axel to show what he’s capable of next to our players. We know he’s going to be a big, big part of this club in the future. He probably impressed me more than I expected. That’s why he’s on the bench. He can slot in midfield and right back as well, so he’s able to play different positions.”

There was an acknowledgement from Solskjaer, though, that he has at least one centre-half too many. Rojo’s proposed move to Everton collapsed on transfer deadline day but the Argentina defender could still depart before the close of the European windows on Sept. 2

“Of course I do have too many centre-backs to keep everyone happy, but we need to win games, we need to perform, so we’re going to pick the players that will give us the biggest chance to win games,” Solskjaer said. “Eric’s injury means that at the moment I’ve got six fit ones, which is maybe one too many to keep everyone involved.”