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Smalling and Jones didn’t work out – but Man United’s new centre-back partnership could be the real deal

The new pairing of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof could become United’s bedrock for the next few years

A clean-sheet was the icing on the cake for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Man United’s spluttering win over Leicester last weekend.

The club is a work in progress, after all, and will take every positive result it can against potential top six challengers.

Toppling Liverpool and Man City will have to wait. For now.


Biding my time

Biding my time

But despite being some way off their local rivals, at least the club’s back-line is in the best shape it’s been in years.

The signing of Harry Maguire in the summer for a record fee was certainly a no-brainer, as United’s defence had been crying out for a competent leader at the back for some time (sorry Ashley Young, we said competent).

And placing Maguire alongside Victor Lindelof – who’s just signed a new long term contract – means the heart of their defence has two nailed down centre-backs for the foreseeable future.

Couple that with David De Gea being tied down until 2023, and you’ve suddenly got that genuine stability that every major team strives for.

Victor will stick around until 2024

Getty - Contributor
Victor will stick around until 2024

It’s certainly been a long time coming.

For what feels like an eternity, United have entered season after season with the potential defensive combination of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, while Marcos Rojo and the seldom-seen Eric Bailly have offered supporting roles.

Jones and Smalling, in particular, have been one of English football’s most enduring punchlines; each heavily criticised for failing to fulfil their potential.

Once seen as natural successors to the almost-mythical pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, we can only guess that the pressure of such a tag line thwarted their early progress.

With Smalling’s move to Roma and Jones’ failure to even make the bench for the most part this season, that unfortunate chapter of United’s post-Ferguson era has finally come to an end.

Good ol’ days

Rex Features
Good ol’ days

The thing is, Ferdinand and Vidic created such an almighty benchmark, that matching their brilliance has become one of the great lingering issues for the Red Devils – almost on par with finding a No.7 capable of having the same impact as Cristiano Ronaldo.

The fact is, it’ll be mightily difficult for the club to find such combined quality again.

But Maguire and Lindelof could be the next best thing, as they each have their own individual qualities that could eventually merge to be one of the best partnerships across Europe.

And with De Gea just behind them, Solskjaer will hope the trio become United’s bedrock for the next few years.

Look to the future

PA:Press Association
Look to the future

Of course, the duo will need time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Ferdinand and Vidic wasn’t successful straight away.

Maguire has certainly impressed in his first few weeks at United.

He named Man of the Match for the performance on his debut as United ran out 4-0 winners over Chelsea, while he also got the better of his old friend Jamie Vardy in the clash against Leicester.

And a lot has changed since Lindelof’s desperate start to life at Old Trafford in 2017, when the Swede looked way out of his depth.

It took him nearly a season to establish himself in United’s back-line, but he was one of their better performers last year.

Like any player experiencing a tough start to life at Old Trafford, he simply needed time.

Even the great Vidic struggled to adapt in his first six months at the club, later admitting he initially thought the move from Spartak Moscow in 2006 was a mistake.

“After six months in England,” Vidic said in an interview in 2014, “I realised the only way to adapt is to work hard.”

Big shoes to fill

Bradley Ormesher - The Times
Big shoes to fill

Vidic – and his enduring partnership with Ferdinand – was well worth the wait.

Forget Jones and Smalling, as their failure to adapt is now part of United’s recent past.

But Maguire and Lindelof could end up being the real deal.