Eric Bailly’s return a big boost for Manchester United
The Ivorian defender has missed three months of action for the Red Devils but his return significantly bolsters Jose Mourinho’s defensive options.
The treatment room at Old Trafford over the past number of years has often been overcrowded with the crocked central defenders whose misfortune has led to constant instability at the heart of the club’s defence.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have both had their spells in Manchester blighted by recurring injuries and muscular issues; a curse which the club’s new batch of defenders have not been lucky enough to escape.
Marcos Rojo was sidelined for over seven months last year following an ACL knee ligament injury, while a theme of recurring injuries have limited Eric Bailly to a mere 32 league starts from a possible 66 since his arrival from Villarreal last year.
Mourinho’s first signing
The Ivorian was the first arrival at Old Trafford following on from Jose Mourinho’s appointment in June 2016 and he has swiftly established himself as a massive fan’s favourite.
The 23-year-old’s ascension to prominence was swift. After making five first-team appearances for Espanyol he was snapped up by La Liga rivals Villarreal in a £5 million deal in January 2015, as a replacement for Arsenal-bound Gabriel Paulista.
He made 46 appearances for the Yellow Submarine before joining United for a reported £30 million – a fee which at the time raised a few eyebrows.
Going for the gamble
It represented somewhat of a gamble to put such faith in a player who had limited experience at the top level but his strong start to his Manchester United career put those doubts to bed.
He was named as Man of the Match in each of his opening two games – victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth – before subsequently winning the club’s Player of the Month award.
A robust central defender, Bailly is an excellent reader of the game and possesses excellent positional skills, while his pace and awareness allows him to execute regular perfectly-timed tackles.
Also capable of playing at right-back, the defender likes to keep things simple in possession – playing short passes and minimising risk.
Back for business
His cameo appearance from the substitute’s bench against Chelsea on Sunday came three months after his last outing in the Premier League, which was ironically against the English champions.
Manchester United have kept five clean sheets in the eight matches in which Bailly has started this season, while few fans would not restore him immediately to the starting line-up when fully fit.
Many of the club’s faithful have correctly pointed out Manchester United’s most commonly fielded backline this season – Antonio Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Ashley Young – consists of four players who were signed by Sir Alex Ferguson and two of whom are converted wingers.
Jones and particularly Smalling have come under fair criticism this year for being exposed in testing conditions and for making poor decisions.
Facing the fire
Bailly is a natural defender. With Mourinho seemingly planning to build a long-term defensive partnership of the Ivorian alongside the more elegant and possession-based Victor Lindelof, this combination would not be totally dissimilar to that of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at Old Trafford.
The former Villarreal defender is undoubtedly talented and his return coincides with the heat being cranked up both domestically and in Europe for Mourinho.
With ten league matches remaining and the club still in contention with two cup competitions, Bailly’s contribution this campaign could yet be significant.
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