In Louis van Gaal’s final season, Manchester United boasted the joint best defensive record in the league. Although majorly down to our possession-obsessed style of play, a major credit is due to Chris Smalling and Daley Blind, who formed a formidable partnership in the heart of the defence.
But with Smalling initially unavailable this season, summer acquisition Eric Baily has stepped in to emphatic effect.
However, with Smalling’s return, Mourinho now possesses a full complement of defensive options, leaving him with a favourable selection headache. This article will discuss the individual ability of Blind, Smalling and Bailly and what the future holds for these three special players.
It’s no coincidence that our defence prospers whenever Daley Blind plays. With calmness and ice cool composure, the Dutchman elegantly distributes the ball from the back. He tends to hold back from diving into challenges, instead reading the game and make clinical interceptions, allowing Smalling or Bailly to aggressively press attackers.
A decisive mastermind, Blind, unfortunately, lacks physicality, aerial presence and pace – the traits of a typical centre-half.
Since being sent off in a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in November 2014, Chris Smalling has evolved from a clumsy, injury-prone liability into one of the Premierships most formidable centre-halves. Although he’s prone to yellow cards and his distribution isn’t great, Smalling embodies strength, pace, aggression into a natural-born leader.
Last, but certainly not least, is new-boy Eric Bailly. Arriving for a £30 million price tag from Villarreal, the Ivorian international is tailor-made for the Premiership. Like Smalling, Bailly incorporates strength and physicality alongside remarkable pace.
After a breakthrough year with Sevilla, Bailly was one of the hottest properties in La Liga; being dribbled past less often than any other regular centre-back at a top-four club in Spain, a list that includes Diego Godin, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.
Indeed a sensational signing by Mourinho, the 22-year-old has already seemingly acclimatised to his new surroundings after nabbing the official Manchester United website’s August Player of the Month.
Although he’s showcased his ability, Bailly is still prone the occasional poor decision; however, this is merely borne from his inexperience, which will undoubtedly improve with time and patience.
Since his return, Bailly and Smalling have been paired together whilst Blind fills in for the absence of Luke Shaw. Although Smalling and Bailly’s strength and height constitute to typical Mourinho-style players, it’s clear to see how instrumental Blind is to the side.
The Dutchman’s partnership with Smalling last season worked so well because they complimented each other; Smalling contributed the brawn, whilst Blind provided the brain in a partnership. This pattern continued when Bailly replaced Smalling.
In contrast, the recent partnership of Bailly and Smalling has, until recently, looked slightly out of tune. However, massive improvements were made in last night’s stern draw with Liverpool, with both centre-halves contributed to a defensively acute performance.
I would argue Ander Herrera is pivotal in their long-term partnership. In a deserving Man of the Match performance, not only the Spaniard superbly shield the back four, but he often came deep to swiftly distribute the ball forward.
With Smalling aged 26, and Bailly 22, the pair still have their best years ahead of them. Should they be able to muster an understanding of each other’s game, the two could form United’s defensive backbone for years to come.
Meanwhile, I’d argue Blind’s versatility is currently holding him back. When he arrived from Ajax in 2014, he was regarded as a technically gifted holding midfielder with the adaptability to fill in at centre-half and left-back. Initially, he anchored an exciting free-flowing diamond formation, but his then lack of physicality meant he struggled in a very shaky team.
Blind has come a long way since his arrival, and I’d argue he’s drastically developed the physical aspect to his game due to playing as a centre-half.
Although Herrera is doing fantastically well in a defensive midfield role, I’d love to see Blind being given a chance to reclaim the sweeper position. Not only would he adequately protect the back four, but he could bring the ball forward from defence and dictate the play for a deep-lying position.
Blind, Herrera and Pogba would equate into a perfectly balanced midfield. Blind could provide a defensive foundation, Herrera could provide an engine with attacking urgency, whilst Pogba could be given the license to roam forward to bully the opposition.
In conclusion, I see Bailly and Smalling forming the defensive mantle for the foreseeable future. However, I do believe their partnership will be dependent on their relationship with the sides number six; currently Ander Herrera.
Although Herrera is doing remarkably well in his reimagined role, it’d be interesting to see Daley Blind anchor the midfield, with Herrera being pushed a little further forward. This would allow Herrera to contribute his attacking exploits and Blind to control the tempo of the game in a Carrick-styled way.
Written by Will Darby