Manchester United did not have the greatest of days on Sunday. With Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester City all dropping points before United’s visit to Chelsea, this was perfectly set up to put United’s season back on track. Instead, an uninspired performance combined with a series of errors buried United in a 4-0 defeat. But that wasn’t the last of it. Early in the second half, United defender Eric Bailly had to be substituted due to injury.
And unfortunately for United, it seems like a serious one, as Jose Mourinho shared after the match:
“He is injured and I am afraid he is badly injured. In his knee, in the ligament area. He feels it is really bad.”
Bailly’s injury still needs further assessment before the full extent of it can be known, and until then we won’t be able to know for sure how long he will be ruled out for. But a serious ligament injury could rule him out for months, and because of that United would need to adapt. Bailly has been one of United’s best players so far this, and easily the best of the summer signings so far. Losing him would be as big a loss as United can have by losing a single player, so they’d need to do a bit more than simply playing someone else. These are what they need to do.
Move Daley Blind back into central defence
Of course, before anything else they’d need to replace Bailly, and there’s no better option in the squad than Blind. The Dutchman partnered Bailly in defence at the start of the season and he was formidable. But following an injury to Luke Shaw he was shifted out to cover the left back position, and he hasn’t enjoyed as much success. While he’s been solid still, he’s a lot more suited to playing centrally.
Now that Bailly’s sidelined and Shaw’s back in full fitness, it’s a natural decision to put him back where he has shone so brightly. And Blind has experience partnering with Chris Smalling, getting the best out of him last season, so he might get the Englishman to go back to performing again.
Play a proper defensive midfielder
Time and again during the past month or so, one problem that United have is that their midfield hasn’t been protecting the defence enough. Ander Herrera has done well in a deep role, but as shown in games against Manchester City and Chelsea, United need more protection from their midfield. And now that United are missing their best performing defender, they need it even more.
Marouane Fellaini excelled in the role in the opening few games of the season but lost his early form after not very long. One player who could be given a chance is Morgan Schneiderlin. He hasn’t been given much game time and hasn’t shown why he shouldn’t be given more opportunities. Schneiderlin was deemed one of the best defensive midfielders in the league before signing for United, and while he’s shown flashes of that for United, now could be the time for him to truly show that once more
Another option would be Timothy Fosu-Mensah. The youngster has played a handful of first-team games, but mostly in defence. He has always performed in midfield in the youth teams and showed a small glimpse of his ability in United’s 4-1 Europa League win over Fenerbahce. Starting him in midfield would be the more exciting choice for fans, but his lack of experience is a concern. In the end, however, either of them would provide the depleted defence much-needed cover.
Smalling and Blind can’t play every game until Bailly recovers, Phil Jones probably won’t recover before Bailly does, and Marcos Rojo won’t exactly be an upgrade. As Louis van Gaal did before, it could be time for Mourinho to dip into United’s reserves and give Axel Tuanzebe his break.
Tuanzebe has been a high rated prospect in the reserves for some time now and has grown into an important member of the team, receiving high praise from U23 manager Warren Joyce, after picking him as captain. He has maturity and intelligence beyond his years, with a matching physicality to boot and pace not dissimilar to the now-sidelined Bailly. While he might not be ready to take on the biggest and best of oppositions, if there was ever a time to ease him into the first team it’s now. Who knows, Bailly’s injury could be for Tuanzebe what Anthony Martial’s was to Marcus Rashford.