Credit: Manchester United Football Club
By Michael Burney
Since his arrival from Villarreal in the summer of 2016, Eric Bailly has only managed to show glimpses of his undoubted talent as a centre back. There have been numerous injuries and mad cap moments which has even lead to a Twitter page named ‘Out of context Eric Bailly’ in his honour. In 4 and a half years, the Ivorian has made just 93 appearances for a Manchester United side which has regularly been labelled as shaky at the back.
The last ditch block in the New Years’ Day victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford, and his strong, commanding performances in recent weeks, have shown how valuable Bailly can be to the club. It would be fair to say that since his arrival in M16, the backline has struggled to maintain a consistent central defensive partnership.
There has been Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Axel Tuanzebe and Bailly himself all vying for those positions in that time. During the vast majority of the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, goalkeeper David De Gea had been responsible for ensuring the club didn’t drop more points than they did over that period.
Now with De Gea not as imperious as he once was, the defence needs to step up. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the reins at Old Trafford though, the defensive record has actually been pretty good. However, a consistent, long term central defensive partnership still seems quite elusive. For much of the past 2 years, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have been the first choice, but there have been many moments when they have failed to convince that together they could be the long-term solution.
If Eric Bailly can keep fit, it would be fair to say, that he is a more mobile, stronger and intimidating presence than Lindelof, and that his style can compliment Maguire more. There are though many who are not totally convinced on the club captain himself, with some suggesting that the £80m fee paid to Leicester for was too much for a player of his ability.
In my opinion, Maguire is a very good, strong presence at the back and needs someone with more pace and who is more reliable alongside him. It is no secret that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was targeting a new centre back in the summer, with a rumoured interest in RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano. The club may well go back in for the French international this summer coming, although his performance in front of Solskjaer in the 4-0 hammering of the German side at Old Trafford this season won’t have done him any favours.
If Eric Bailly can keep fit, he is arguably the better option to partner Maguire at the heart of the defence. With Axel Tuanzebe continuing to progress, and with high hopes for Teden Mengi coming through the system, the future does look bright. The here and now, however, also needs to take priority at this stage. With United now embroiled in the title race this season, a consistent centre back pairing is required and at this stage Solskjaer may well feel that Bailly can be the better partner for Maguire during the run in.
In getting Manchester United to this stage, it has shown that the work Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done throughout the club is bearing fruit. He has changed the culture, mentality and emphasis on youth recruitment back to where it was during the Ferguson era. There is still work to do, but the club are back on the right track.
Should Solskjaer get the backing from the board over the next 2 windows to bring in the players he wants, a 21st English League title is more than possible. By bringing in a right back to challenge Aaron Wan Bissaka (possibly Max Aarons from Norwich), plus a top drawer defensive midfield player and centre back, the current team may well be turned into a title winning one once more. If the manager can keep Eric Bailly fit, though, he may not need to worry as much about the defence as he has in the past.