Victor Lindelof's form is another reason for Man United fans to be cheerful
The away end at Newcastle on Wednesday night bounced to the tune of the moment, a Manchester United version of The Stone Roses' "Waterfall." The song took off in Valencia last month, though the lyrics seemed out of sync with reality. Praising "Jose at the wheel," asking "Tell me how good does it feel?" or mentioning "We've got Rashford, Paul Pogba and Fred" was inaccurate; Jose Mourinho was failing, nothing felt good, Marcus Rashford was annoyed with his manager, Pogba wasn't playing well and Fred just wasn't playing.
Less than a month later, how things have changed. Fans sing about "Ole" being at the wheel of the United bus and are enjoying the ride that extended to four straight wins at St James' Park. A fifth could follow at home to Reading in the FA Cup on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+) before the players depart for warm-weather training in Dubai ahead of a visit to Tottenham on Jan. 13.
Jose Mourinho might reflect that those players let him down badly to the point he lost his job, but Solskjaer is getting them to play and United even kept a clean sheet at Newcastle. Granted, their opponents have only scored seven goals in 11 home games, but it was only the third time David De Gea's goal has not been breached in the league this season; only Fulham have a worse record.
Victor Lindelof was United's best defender on Wednesday, extending a run of impressive form. Nobody is claiming he is as good as Virgil van Dijk, who Liverpool identified to transform their team before making him the world's most expensive defender a year ago, but Lindelof is only 24, which is three years younger than the Dutch international and a year younger than was Nemanja Vidic he arrived at Old Trafford in 2006.
"He's a cultured European centre-back, isn't he?" Solskjaer said of Lindelof earlier this week. "He gets on the ball, he passes it really well. He knows when to quicken things up and when to slow things down. It is different to play in England and he's had time to adapt and he's been excellent."
Lindelof struggled to adapt to English football after arriving in 2017 and it did not help that he was playing in a changeable defence. People purporting to be United fans criticised him online after his debut at Huddersfield and he went on to start only 13, error-strewn league games last season. One year on, his appearance at Newcastle saw him surpass that total with almost half the season to play.
But United's defence remains a work in progress. Despite spending more than £60 million on Lindelof and Eric Bailly, Mourinho was not satisfied and wanted another central defender at the start of this season. It was to be the main sticking point that would lead to a summer of discontent and, ultimately, his downfall.
United believed he revealed his desire too late in the day and that, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, they already had four plus Marcos Rojo and youngster Axel Tuanzebe, who Mourinho wanted to consider on the club's preseason tour of the United States. But this season has shown that the manager had a point.
United's defence has leaked 32 goals in 21 games and not one central defender has started more than Lindelof. Successful teams need a spine and United do not have one in defence. Instead, they have a collection of injury-prone talents who can be world beaters on their day but lack the required fitness and consistency. Rojo has started once, Bailly and Jones five times, Chris Smalling 13.
Sixteen different defensive combinations have been used and is an obvious reason why so many goals have been leaked. Twelve different players have operated at the back: Smalling, Jones, Bailly, Rojo, Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, Nemanja Matic, Ashley Young, Antonio Valenciam Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay. Meanwhile, De Gea's form has not been quite so spectacular as a year ago, either.
Lindelof's form gives reason for optimism, though. He came through the intensity of England's festive schedule by playing every minute of every game. At Newcastle, he won every tackle he attempted, won more aerial balls than any other player on the pitch and made the most clearances more balls. No wonder he got a hug from Solskjaer at full-time.
"Very happy, of course," a smiling Lindelof said after the game. "We wanted to get a clean sheet, very happy. We knew it was going to be tough. We showed great character today. I'm always happy to play and help the team."
Lindelof, who dealt equally well with Solomon Rondon's strength and the pace of Ayoze Perez, is quiet and respected in the United dressing room. In his fellow Scandinavian, he has a manager who likes him and will give him opportunities to play; after several wobbles in an unstable line-up, maybe fans are seeing a decent player emerge.