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What next for Eric Bailly? The Ivorian faces battle for Manchester United future

Eric Bailly joined Manchester United in July 2016 from Villarreal CF for a reported fee of £30 million. He was José Mourinho’s first signing as United manager and made an immediate impact at the club, quickly climbing the pecking order to start most of the early games in the 2016/17 season. The rest of that season was stop-start for Bailly, as injury and absence due to the 2017 African Cup of Nations meant he was in and out of the team.

He ended his first season at United under suspension, having been sent off against RC Celta de Vigo in the UEFA Europa League semi-final second leg at Old Trafford. Bailly had to watch the final from the side-lines and only played in United’s final few league games, which were effectively dead-rubber as the club could not finish any higher than sixth.

United purchased Victor Lindelöf a year after Bailly arrived. Fans and pundits alike believed this would become José Mourinho’s preferred centre-back pairing at the club and it seemed as though the Portuguese tactician had begun to stamp his authority on the team. However, the two rarely played together as a pairing in 2017/18, with Chris Smalling being Lindelöf’s most regular partner. They did begin the 2018/19 season as the first-choice pairing but Bailly was dropped by Mourinho after an error-strewn performance in the 3-2 defeat at Brighton and Hove Albion.

United’s then-manager then reverted to favouring the Lindelöf-Smalling combination for the last few months of his tenure. Bailly’s continued absence after that defeat led many to believe that he had fallen out with his manager. While initially not preferred under then-caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he was awarded an opportunity to stake his claim for a place in the team over the busy festive period of the Premier League season.

Bailly wasted this opportunity, getting sent off against Bournemouth after a needless and rash tackle. He returned from suspension and made a few appearances before suffering a knee injury against Chelsea that would result in the end of his season as well as his exclusion from the Ivory Coast’s AFCON squad. United set a new record for the number of goals conceded by the club in a Premier League season in 2018/19. As such, they have been actively searching for defensive reinforcements in the transfer market.

Right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka has already been purchased from Crystal Palace, effectively to replace departed former club captain Antonio Valencia. In addition to this, Axel Tuanzebe has returned from a successful loan spell at Aston Villa, strengthening United’s options at centre-back. The club is also on the hunt for a top-level centre-back to regularly partner Victor Lindelöf, the most consistent central defender at the club in 2018/19.

Tuanzebe’s impressive showings on tour thus far has caused supporters to fear that Bailly is going to be left out in the cold, even if United were to sell one of the other centre-backs currently in the squad to offset the purchase of another. This has led to Bailly being linked with a move away from the club, perhaps to the French Ligue 1, which he has apparently rejected. This should definitely be seen as a positive for United. Bailly, while also injury prone like Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, is the youngest of the trio at 25 and likely possesses the highest ceiling.

His performances since he signed have also demonstrated the fact that, when fully fit, he is the superior defender in terms of his physicality and ball-playing ability. United’s injury woes in defence over the last few seasons have nixed the development of any possible central defensive partnership. Jones and Rojo formed an unlikely but strong combination in late 2016 before injuries side-lined them both. Lindelöf and Smalling meanwhile, have the potential to become a formidable duo as they possess complementary traits.

Their recent partnership however, has been less than impressive. This of course, has been underlined by United’s struggles in defence in general. Wan-Bissaka’s signing means United finally have a specialist right-back with Premier League experience to occupy the position for the foreseeable future. Combine that with Lindelöf and Luke Shaw’s performances from last season and it appears the club are one player defender from finally having a settled back four again after a number of years. While it does not appear likely that Bailly will be the one to complete this regular defence, he still has a role to play in the coming years.

United fans, who have not seen their team defend with any kind of solidity over the past few seasons, would welcome the prospect of Solskjaer having a secondary back four of Diogo Dalot, Tuanzebe, Bailly and Ashley Young, who may even be replaced by a specialist left-back before next season. These players, along with Smalling, Jones and Rojo offer Solskjaer a variety of options, including using a three-man defence, which he did on occasion last season. They could also step in when one of his preferred first-choice defenders are unavailable due to suspension or injury.

Bailly remaining at the club could also be a significant boost for the development of Tuanzebe. The two share many similar traits in that they are physically dominant, good with the ball at their feet and possess decent pace. They have also both been used at right-back by José Mourinho for these reasons, which is where Bailly started the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie away at Paris Saint-Germain, before being forced off through injury.

Tuanzebe is one of the best young defenders to emerge from the academy in recent times and Solskjaer has promised to give him the opportunity to reach his full potential. Having a similar player who is more experienced to play alongside and learn from will certainly be a benefit for the 21-year-old, who has previously found opportunities limited at United. In his tenure thus far, Solskjaer has not been afraid to play United’s younger, inexperienced players, even when the team is struggling.

Notable instances of this include giving debuts to Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood in important games last season. This bodes well for both Tuanzebe and Bailly, as they can expect to be given opportunities to stake a claim for a regular place in United’s defence over the course of the season, particularly in the Europa League and domestic cup competitions.

All told, Bailly is still very young for a defender and has plenty of time on his side. In previous eras, United’s better centre-backs were purchased when they were around their mid-20s, after cutting their teeth at other clubs, either locally or abroad. Bailly, of course, already has three seasons worth of experience in the Premier League and may still have his best years ahead of him, provided he can improve his fitness and shake off these persistent injuries. He should be given the opportunity to reach the peak of his abilities while still playing for United. If he does so, he will not be the only one to benefit.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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