In the Summer of 2016, Manchester United signed Eric Bailly for £30 million, with the defender being the first official signing made by Jose Mourinho. On the day he signed, BBC Sport reported that Mourinho had stated; ‘Eric has the potential to become one of the best around’, high praise for a player who was relatively unknown after signing from Villareal at only 22 years of age.
At the time United, and its fans, were crying out for a dynamic centre-back, however, five years later, United have Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof in that position, as well as players such as Scott McTominay who could fill in if there was an injury crisis.
This depth in defence has left Bailly as current fourth pick for the centre-back position, should the defender stay at the club and fight for his place in the first eleven, or is it better for all parties if the defender moves on?
In Bailly’s first season at the club, the 2016/17 season, United registered the highest number of clean sheets in the league with 17, joint with Tottenham Hotspur. When fit, Bailly was a mainstay in the defence that achieved this, usually partnered with Daley Blind or Chris Smalling, Bailly’s pace was a factor that made him stand out from other defenders at the club.
Across all competitions for United that season, Bailly totted up 3,289 minutes, missing a handful of games with a knee injury. Since his first season at the club, Eric Bailly has not since registered over 2,000 minutes in all competitions.
Many fans believed Bailly would kick on in his next season, but an ankle injury kept him out from mid-November until February, missing crucial games in the league and Europe in the process, this would signal the beginning of the end for Eric Bailly as a nailed on starter for United. The defender was now labelled injury prone after sustaining two significant injuries in consecutive seasons since joining the club, it is likely that this injury record led to the signing of Victor Lindelof in the summer of 2017, and later, the £80 million signing of Harry Maguire in the summer of 2019.
Both players jumped above Bailly in the pecking order at United, with both players having extremely solid injury records to boot, with Maguire in particular playing more minutes than any other player worldwide in the 2019/20 season, as reported by Manchester United.
With his injury record, Bailly had very little chance of taking the spot of either man, as is illustrated by the fact that in the 2019/20 season, the first season of the Maguire and Lindelof partnership, Bailly only played 780 minutes for United across all competitions. This was a clear indication that Bailly was no longer favoured over other centre-backs in the club.
However, this summer Bailly looked to turn a corner as he was fit and available for his country during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He appeared in all four of Ivory Coast’s games, playing the full game in all, showing a sustained level of fitness fans haven’t seen from the Ivorian for many seasons.
Bailly’s hopes to break into the first team may have been dashed when United announced the signing of four-time Champions League winner and World Cup winner Varane this summer, a signing that is certainly not one for the bench. With three very solid defenders ahead of him, all with decent injury records, is it time up for Bailly at United?
If Bailly is after guaranteed game time, it might be the end of the road for him, as in the league it is almost certain that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will go with a Maguire/Varane partnership, with Lindelof as a crucial rotating option for when United’s schedule is packed, this leaves very little room for Bailly.
However, Solskjaer has a record of nurturing players and finding a place for them when it looks as though they are out of the door, with Nemanja Matic being a key example of this in recent seasons. There is no doubt that for squad depth, United will want to hang on to Bailly as it is crucial when playing in four competitions to have options.
For Bailly, however, at the age of 27, there might be questions over his development stalling when not being guaranteed game time. He may well feel as though, when fit, he is still a top-class defender and want to prove this at another club.
Whatever the case may be, Bailly is certainly a ‘what if?’ for many United fans who saw his best form in the 2016/17 season, but with time still on the defenders side and a contract until 2024, there is still an opportunity for Bailly, if he stays fit, to prove he has the ability to be a starting centre-back for United.
It is important to note, that in the mind of the manager, Bailly is still a crucial player. In 2021 Solskjaer stated ‘Eric has improved his robustness since my time as manager and he will continue to play a significant part in the squad’, as reported by Manchester United. With the belief and backing of the manager, anything can happen, and perhaps if Manchester United stick with the fan favourite, their belief will be rewarded.
Written by Jennifer McCord