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Could the return of Eric Bailly from injury be the answer to Manchester United's defensive problems?

After the £130 million acquisitions of both Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, most Manchester United fans believed that the defensive aspect of the team was set to vastly improve, yet the reds currently have the same number of clean sheets in the Premier League as they did after the same amount of games in 2018/2019, three, ranking third bottom.

Maguire was seen as the imposing leader to marshal Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s back four in the model of Virgil van Dijk, yet it was actually his performances in a back three for England in the 2018 World Cup that impressed United so much, leading to him becoming a key transfer target for Jose Mourinho later that summer.

The formation of a back three is something Solskjaer has done previously but only for specialised games against the likes of Sheffield United and Liverpool, although he did suggest in October that he could stick with it and acknowledged Maguire’s role for England.

“Harry and Jonah (Jones) were involved in a back three in a semi-final. Injuries have made us go into this position but it’s working quite well.”

The Red Devils have enough centre backs in the squad to deploy this system yet many have been struck down with injury, mainly Eric Bailly, whose knee ligament damage sustained in pre-season meant the purchase of Maguire was accelerated. Now the Ivorian is back in training, it should be in Solskjaer’s mind to now use him this time in a permanent change of shape to complement his main centre back pairing of Maguire and Victor Lindelöf.

In his first season at the club, Bailly’s pace and recovery speed made him a fan favourite, no more so when he faced up against Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. United kept the joint highest number of clean sheets in 2016/2017 with Bailly being United’s highest rated central defender in his debut campaign, making both 2.4 tackles and interceptions per game

Since then he has suffered both short and long-term injuries, but has had some key performances, most recently against Chelsea in April 2019, where Bailly won all of his aerial duels and tackles whilst making six key interceptions, before going off with an unfortunate knee injury.

So far this season in Bailly’s absence we have seen Maguire often having to be pulled out wide into uncomfortable positions to cover for the lack of tracking back from Luke Shaw, most recently in the first half of the 2-0 defeat against Arsenal where Alexandre Lacazette turned him inside out before getting a shot away on goal. 

In the 2018 World Cup, Maguire was deployed in a back three with Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and John Stones alongside him. Walker was positioned there by Gareth Southgate to allow Maguire and Stones to step into midfield and play the ball out from the back without them feeling exposed as Walker had the pace to cover, a role Bailly could easily perform in United’s side.

When looking at Lindelöf, he is often a player who tends to get too tight to opposition strikers, giving away needless free-kicks which then teams subsequently target him on. United have conceded eight goals from set pieces this season, compared to Manchester City’s four, Liverpool’s three and Leicester’s two. He was exposed on a number of occasions earlier in the season against Southampton and Crystal Palace, leading to Mourinho to state of the Swede on Sky Sports:

“Lindelöf is very, very good in some aspects of the game, but he can be bullied in the one by one in the box, he’s not especially good in the air.”

If Bailly was played in a back three, his spring and fearlessness may mean opposition teams might not target Lindelöf so much, leading to him being able to focus on having the ball at his feet and playing it into the midfield and the strikers to start attacks. A back three would also allow other players in the defence to advance up the pitch, such as Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams, who would attack more in wing back roles and not have to get back and perform as many recovery tackles.

However, the question remains, can Bailly can stay injury free? Having missed over 300 days in his three-and-a-half seasons at the club, will he firstly be able to cement a place in the team and then secondly, forge a sustainable understanding with Maguire and Lindelöf? His injury record preceeds him but there is no doubting his ability to potentially perform such a role. The stats are now that desperate that something needs to change for Solskjaer.

Written by Alex Metcalfe

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