Should a fit Eric Bailly start for Manchester United?
Image: Ian Mcallister/Wikimedia Commons.
In the summer of 2018 Manchester United's former boss, Jose Mourinho, was desperate for a centre-back signing. Reports that the powers that be vetoed the request outraged supporters. The £60million+ the self-proclaimed Special One had already spent on the likes of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof had the club's hierarchy in doubt about the Portuguese. Fast forward past the sacking of the 57-year-old and United's new boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, put in the same request. This prompted Executive Vice Chairman, Ed Woodward, to back his new manager and sign Harry Magure from Leicester City for £80million.
Despite the significant investment, Solskjaer's confidence in his centre-backs was clearly illustrated when United met bitter rivals Liverpool in January. Instead of using either Lindelof or Maguire, who both come in at over 6 feet tall, the boss tasked 5'7" Brandon Williams with man-marking Virgil Van Dijk who towered over him at 6'3".
In that game, the Dutchman easily headed home from a corner making it 1-0. The Old Trafford Faithful will know this wasn't a once-off occurrence. United have conceded 8 goals from corners this season. To put that into perspective, only Norwich and Aston Villa have let in more, both of whom are battling relegation. Solskjaer has also insisted on playing out from the back even while he lacks the personnel to do so.
In the Red's reverse League Cup fixture against Manchester City, Solskjaer's defence constantly invited pressure into their 18-yard box and on more than one occasion got themselves into a dangerous situation. While United's backline could yet turn into a sturdy one, they lack an edge someone like Bailly could provide.
The Ivorian made an instant impact upon his arrival at the club. His aggression and willingness to 'break his nose' in order to stop a goal, made him an immediate fan favourite, earning comparisons with the likes of Nemanja Vidic. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old's time at The Theatre of Dreams has been marred by injury. In his debut season, the man from Villarreal made 39 appearances for the club, in the two years since then, Bailly has featured a paltry 36 times. A knee injury in pre-season has kept centre-back out for most of the current campaign.
Bailly is on the cusp of recovery and would be a welcome improvement on Solskjaer's current options. Maguire has certainly added a level of composure to the Red's defence, however, in Bailly the England international would have a partner more capable than Lindelof. During his short stint in punditry, Mourinho provided insight into the key shortcomings of his signing from Benfica:
Lindelof is very, very good in some aspects of the game but he can be bullied in a one v one in the box, he’s not especially good in the air.
Comparing Bailly's first season with Lindelof's current illustrates stark differences. Whoscored reveals that per game, the Ivory Coast international averaged 0.7 more tackles, 0.7 more interceptions and 1.5 more clearances. Interestingly, he also averages 0.2 more offside calls won per 90, indicating a better positional sense than his Swedish counterpart who was known for his in-game awareness back in Portugal.
For now, Solskjaer will have to work with what he has. Currently, United's centre back pairing has no real competition to propel their performances. The imminent return of Bailly will not only provide motivation for the current duo but also give United's Baby Faced Assassin another option in his final push for a Champions League spot.