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Just how good can Eric Bailly be?

On June 8th, 2016, Eric Bailly became the first signing by former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. The deal, which saw the Red Devils pay Villarreal around £30 million, brought what was believed to be a powerful defender, filled with potential but very rough around the edges, to the club.

An apparent phone call from Jose Mourinho is what made Bailly decide on Manchester United in the summer. The Daily Mail quotes Bailly asking a friend, “How can I say no when Mourinho calls me?”

Mourinho, who saw the raw talent and potential of Bailly has tipped him to become one of the world’s best at the back. Manager and United fans alike will hope that Bailly can come good on Mourinho’s prediction, as they have lacked a star man in central defense since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic left The Theatre of Dreams.

United fans didn’t have to wait long to see the potential of their new man. In Bailly’s first competitive game, The FA Community Shield, he displayed his speed and physicality. Bailly repeatedly ran down Leicester’s star man Jamie Vardy. Vardy had just come off a 24 goal season in the Premier League and was clocked as the co-fastest man in the Premier League. Bailly played a big part in keeping Vardy quiet as United beat Leicester to earn Mourinho his first piece of silverware with the club.

While Bailly has surprised and looked much more of a finished project than what United thought they would be getting this season, he has struggled to really assert himself. Struggling with injuries, and taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations mid-season with Ivory Coast, Bailly has only appeared 15 times in the Premier League this season. The low number of appearances is cause for concern as it is a number that must go up if Bailly is to become one of the top defenders in the world.

When comparing Bailly to three of the top defenders in the world today, Gerard Pique, Thiago Silva, and Sergio Ramos, Bailly’s potential to become one of the world’s best certainly seems possible.

At 22, Bailly is significantly younger than the other three defenders with him being the only one of the group under 30. According to Squawka, Bailly averages nine total defensive actions a game, the most in this group of defenders. Silva averages seven, while Pique and Ramos average six.

Bailly also leads the group in tackles per game. Averaging just fewer than two a game is good enough for best of the group, owning a half tackle lead over second place Sergio Ramos.

While this stat shows tackling to be one of Bailly’s strengths, it can be deceiving as tackling is one area that Bailly must improve in. He is known to fly into challenges making rash decisions, and crunching tackles. His second yellow card against Saint-Etienne is a good example of sometimes questionable decision-making. This sort of foul, at mid-field, while already carrying a yellow in a European match, simply cannot happen from a world-class defender.

Another aspect to Bailly’s game that is very much more polished than advertised upon arrival, is his vision as a defender. Bailly has been excellent when called upon to break up passes and stop link-up play. With 42 interceptions on the season, Bailly only trails Sergio Ramos in this category, and it should be noted Ramos has appeared in four more matches than Bailly.

Perhaps the most telling stat of Bailly’s is his success ratio when taken on by attackers this season. He has successfully won 12 of 13 duels when being taken on. Attackers have not been as fearful when taking on Bailly when compared to his counterparts in the group, as he has had to defend five more take-ons than second place Pique, and eleven more than Silva. If his 92 percent success ratio continues throughout the season, however, it would be surprising to continue to see strikers take on Bailly as often moving forward.

Bailly’s performances this season show that the tools are there for the young Ivorian to fulfill Mourinho’s lofty praise and become one of the best in the world. At such a young age Bailly will only continue to improve. And Manchester United fans will be hoping that Mourinho has found half of the clubs next great center back pairing, a pairing like that of Vidic and Ferdinand, who helped take United to the pinnacle of world soccer.

Written by Josh Soutas

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