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Eric Bailly: Stick or Twist?

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

Squad Depth: The Future of Manchester United’s Centre-Back Options

Manchester United have always relied on having strong squad depth to compete at the highest level in all competitions, whether that be the famous 2008/09 squad that featured the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Luis Nani, or squads from the past that featured legends such as Jaap Stam, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Phil and Gary Neville. However, in the past seven years or so United have arguably had little quality squad depth, and this is something that is important in every position on the field if trophies are the target.

Defensively, United have lacked two top class centre-backs since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s formidable partnership, but the signing of Raphael Varane alongside existing club captain Harry Maguire looks to have changed this.

Varane arrives at United boasting an impressive trophy haul from his time with Real Madrid, which includesfour Champions League trophies and three La Liga titles. Add this to his impressive international career, which includes a World Cup and being the youngest ever French captain, it’s clear Varane brings a winning mentality to United that is so desperately needed. United are without a league title since 2013 and haven’t lifted the coveted Champions League trophy since that fantastic night in Moscow in 2008, Varane could be the addition that finally ends the eight-year league drought.

Highly respected and revered at Los Blancos, Varane boasts an impressive defensive and disciplinary record. In his time with Real Madrid, the defender has only picked up 25 yellow cards, and impressively, two red cards. Bearing in mind that’s across 360 matches played for Madrid, his overall record is exemplary. This in itself is testament to the Frenchman’s maturity and level-headed approach to the game, something that is very evident from the interviews he’s given throughout his career, once stating to Real Madrid TV “I always want to play clean”. All of these factors combined paints a picture of a mature top-class player, a quiet leader, and more importantly- a winner.

It’s clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to quickly integrate a player of Varane’s quality into the starting XI, and naturally he will be paired with club captain Harry Maguire. The captain status and Maguire’s impressive run of form throughout last season practically makes him untouchable within the line-up. This new pairing of Maguire and Varane subsequently means that trusted starter Victor Lindelof will lose his place, and he may have a case for being frustrated.

Throughout his four-year tenure at United, Lindelof has never fully convinced the Old Trafford faithful of his ability to be a first-choice centre-back option. However, as of late Lindelöf looks to have had an upturn in form, perhaps personified by his excellent pin point ball to Bruno Fernandes in the opening game against Leeds, which led to Fernandes’s hat-trick.

Nicknamed the ‘The Iceman’, Lindelof has been mostly reliable amongst United’s back four, which is in dire contrast to fellow defender Eric Bailly. If Lindelöf is ‘the iceman’, Bailly is a firecracker- erratic, rash but possessing an undeniable level of quality. Bailly is a tenacious defender, stronger and much quicker than Lindelöf, at the surface level he seems to be the perfect partner for Maguire.

However, dig a little deeper and you see the awful injury record that Bailly has, missing several stretches of games at a time. A lack of consistency means Bailly cannot be considered as a starter, albeit seemingly possessing a high level of talent. A mix of Lindelöf’s reliability and coolness with Bailly’s speed and strength is what United need, and it seems Varane may be just that.

While Varane is nailed on to be a starter, improving United’s starting back four, his potential impact on Lindelof and Bailly could be one of the greatest effects. Solskjaer will hope the arrival of Varane may spur on the other defenders within the United contingent to up their game, which would benefit the quality in squad depth that the team possesses. United will be hoping that they may be able to replicate ‘the Alex Telles’ effect, a signing which almost certainly contributed to Luke Shaw’s incredible campaign last season. Genuine quality breeds even more quality, as the bar is raised so is the level required to stay in contention, and the presence of having a World Cup winner will hopefully bolster the performances of Lindelof and Bailly when selected.

This is vital if United are looking to win on all fronts, squad rotation will be key to avoiding injuries and keeping players fresh. In the past when United have shuffled around defensively, whether that be in cup games or as a matter of necessity, the backline has always seemed somewhat frail or unsure of itself. Solskjaer will hope that this will no longer be the case, with both Lindelof and Bailly having the extra motivation of needing to prove their quality if they want to have a chance of getting back into the starting line-up. 

Conversely, one potential issue that could arise is if either Lindelof or Bailly become disgruntled with being delegated to the bench. While it’s unlikely Lindelöf will grow frustrated, given all indications seem to point to a happy player, Bailly may look to leave the club if he is unable to get many opportunities this season. Bailly penned a new deal back in April this year, keeping him at the club until June 2024, however the international may not be all that happy if he’s denied game time. Signing the contract Bailly made it clear he had intentions of an injury free stint, claiming that he “loved the club”.

The 27-year-old also said he viewed the new contract as “a fresh challenge”, perhaps alluding to his troublesome injury history and how he is trying to move on from that. While Bailly has clear affections for the club, he may just find the signing of Varane less than four months after his contract renewal as a bit of a kick in the teeth. At 27, Bailly needs to be playing regular football if he is to stay at the top of his game, unfortunately United may not be the best place for that.

Away from more experienced players, United still have both Axel Tuanzebe and Teden Mengi within their ranks to consider. Both English centre-backs are still relatively young, Tuanzebe being 23 and Mengi 19, and the pair are touted as having a very high ceiling of talent. While Tuanzebe will be unavailable for selection this year, having just secured a third loan move to Aston Villa, it’s clear that United see a future at the club for Tuanzebe having also just signed a contract extension. While not starting in many games last season, Tuanzebe really impressed in the away win against Paris Saint-Germain, managing to deal with Kylian Mbappe’s blistering pace effectively.

In contrast, Mengi has spent most of his career so far impressing for the under 23’s, although did move to Derby County on loan in the second half of last season. The Manchester born academy graduate had put in a string of good performances before unfortunately having his loan move cut short due to a hamstring injury. Mengi’s future for this season is still undecided as of the time of writing this article, however it’s highly likely that the impressive youngster will go back out on loan to the Championship for this season.

A loan move playing regular Championship football will surely prove more beneficial than simply playing in the under 23’s for Mengi, likely exposing him to adversity and the realities of playing week in week out in front of a large crowd. United will hope both players will gain more valuable experience and playing time this season, so when the pair do return to United, they will provide fresh competition.Overall, the future looks bright for United defensively, and for the centre-back position, in particular.

The squad has gained a born winner with valuable experience in this window, and the hope is this will ignite a competitive spirit amongst the defensive ranks. The addition of more valuable loan experience for the likes of Tuanzebe also bodes well for the future, and with the quality of the current overall United team, United could finally be setup with a high quality, experienced backline for years to come.

Written by Sam Wilson

Eric Bailly offered to Turkish club Fenerbahce this summer with player seemingly unwanted

Manchester United central defender Eric Bailly has reportedly been offered to a number of clubs so far this summer with the latest being Turkish side Fenerbahce, who have had dealing with United in the past five years with Robin van Persie and Nani both signing for the club when they left the Old Trafford club. Just last week, Bailly was offered to AC Milan with the Italian club rejecting the opportunity to sign the Ivorian defender this summer.

The Sun has reported that United have now offered the 26-year-olf to Fenerbahce which makes it look like, despite starting against LASK and FC Copenhagen in the UEFA Europa League, his future at the club is going to be cut short. Whilst that does not seem fair, it has to be considered that the player’s injury record does not look all that great but Phil Jones should be out of the door before him. That said, Bailly’s contract will expire in the summer of 2022 with Jones’ contract expiring a year later.

This season, Bailly has made just 11 first team appearances, making one more in the Premier League 2 playing as one of the three overage outfield players in accordance with the rules at that level, playing jus 780 minutes of football in total this season. United have at least one more match to play this season, against Sevilla in the semi-final of the UEFA Europa League, which could lead to a further and final match of the season if the club reaches the final, which could be against either Inter Milan or Shakhtar Donetsk.

Since signing for United from Villarreal for £30 million during the summer of 2016, under the management of Jose Mourinho, Bailly has suffered four long-term injuries at the club; his first a knee injury seeing him miss eight matches during his debut season at the club. His second injury, a bruise, saw him miss five matches during the 2017/18 season, then suffering an ankle injury that same season, missing 21 matches. The player required knee surgery last summer, missing 28 matches for United, recovering over the Christmas period.

That injury record could stop United trusting the player moving forward. If Jones’ nine years at the club has shown anything, a player that suffers injury after injury is going to be a liability. Jones, who should be forced out of the club before Bailly, is out of action currently after playing just eight times this season. The former England defender has suffered 19 separate injuries in his time at United which has led to him missing 121 matches for the club – this is not ideal at all.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be itching to get his summer rebuild sorted with the aim of getting his squad ready for the new season, which is more than 30 days away – although those English teams still participating in European competition; United and Manchester City, will be granted a later start to the new Premier League season, giving their players a sufficient break before heading into another long season – hopefully not as long as this one, which still has another week and a few days to play.

Written by John Walker

Eric Bailly offered to AC Milan with Italian side not interested – reports

Manchester United central defender Eric Bailly has reportedly been offered to Italian side AC Milan this summer, says The Sun. The Ivorian has seemingly fallen down the pecking order at United and has seen Victor Lindelof predominantly partner Harry Maguire in the centre of the clubs defence. If this is true, it cold well be that Bailly is surplus to requirements at Old Trafford this summer, if United can find a buyer.

It would seem that AC Milan are not the team that would be interested in the Ivorian who signed for United in June 2016 from La Liga side Villarreal for £30 million, signing a four year contract at the time. Back in January, Bailly signed a contract extension which will expire in the summer of 2022, which gives United the opportunity to sell the player this summer, earning funds to continue Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuild.

Italian news source Gazzetta dello Sport is where the report has come from, suggesting that the 26-year-old has been offered to the Serie A club, and seemingly rejected, which is not all that good for United or the player. It could be a similar response from many clubs as they will have seen the fact that Bailly does not have the best injury record at United. In his four years at United, he has missed 62 matches due to injury.

During the 2019/20 season, Bailly have made just 10 appearances for United at first team level, playing once at U23 level as one of the three overage outfield players allowed in conjunction with the Premier League 2 rules and regulations. He has not scored any goals or assists during the course of the season. In four years at the club, Bailly has made 84 appearances, scoring one goal and has played 6,361 minutes of football.

It would seem that with the futures of Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling up in the air with Jones hardly featuring for United, Rojo loaned in January and Smalling returning from loan at AS Roma this week, adding Bailly to that list could severely change Solskjaer’s defensive line with suggestions of a new central defender coming to the club this summer, unless Smalling will end up being retained.

That said, the likes of Teden Mengi and Ethan Laird could give rotation options, however, despite being able to play centrally, Laird seems to be a better fullback option. Axel Tuanzebe will play a part somewhere but his own injury record is alarming and could end up costing him his career, but that will be further down the line. This report makes me wonder is Bailly could leave this summer, which could be a big shake up at the club.

Written by John Walker

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

Eric Bailly could recover from knee injury earlier than expected – reports

Manchester United defender Eric Bailly has reportedly given the club a boost after it has been reported that he was eyeing an early return to action after knee surgery, which was due to keep him out of action until the Christmas period, whether that was a return to training or a date which would have rendered him ready to play again.

The reports come from ESPN FC, who obviously have a source of information that they trust. It is suggested that the Ivorian will target a November return, after the international break, meaning that Bailly could be back to face Sheffield United away, FC Astana away, or even Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

The 25-year-old suffered an injury to his left knee back in April, which ruled him out for the rest of the season, then playing a part in pre-season, aiming to get himself fit for the new season, Bailly injured his right knee against Tottenham Hotspur in China, meaning he was going to be out for at least the first half of the season.

United has suffered a fair share of injuries this season so far with Luke Shaw out for about a month after suffering a thigh injury in the defeat to Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on the 24 August. Added to that, Aaron Wan-Bissaka withdrew from the England squad this month with a back injury and Jesse Lingard withdrew because of illness.

United also has Diogo Dalot on the sidelines with an injury and he recently flew to China to try and solve that ahead of his return to action. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also has Anthony Martial out of action with a thigh injury, Paul Pogba with an ankle injury and Tim Fosu-Mensah also recovering from a knee injury.

At this moment in time, Bailly is not a player who is missed in the centre of defence as the likes of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire have been doing well of late, depending on which way you want to react over the conceded goal against Palace which saw the latter covering for the injured Shaw in the run up to the goal.

Other than Lindelof and Maguire, Solskjaer has Axel Tuanzebe, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo to utilise in defence. Although, once Bailly is fit and ready to play, it will probably bring the end of Rojo’s career at the club as he aimed to leave this summer, a move to Everton falling through. He is being linked to Aston Villa right now though.

Bailly will obviously give United and Solskjaer a boost with him injury return, if the reports are true but he should have a period whereby he plays for the U23s, if they can accommodate him, to ensure that he’s ready and able to fight for a starting position within the first team once again. If so, he can be used as rotation.

United may still be fighting in three tournaments at the time of his reported return from injury; the Premier League, Carabao Cup and UEFA Europa League, with the Emirates FA Cup coming up in January. Solskjaer will need to have as many players fit to overcome these matches, which more often than not will see the club playing twice a week.

Manchester United to discuss contract extension with Ivorian defender Eric Bailly

Manchester United are reportedly set to commence talks with central defender Eric Bailly in order to get him to commit to the club with the offer of a new contract. The Ivory Coast defender will be out of contract next summer, although there is the option to trigger the additional year on the contract he signed in the summer of 2016.

Bailly suffered a knee ligament injury at the end of last season, undergoing surgery which he is yet to recover from. He is expected to be on the sidelines until the Christmas period, which may mean he will not be able to play until January 2020 with him needing to reach a level of match fitness, which may happen with the U23s.

It is expected that the 25-year-old still has a future at the Old Trafford club despite the arrival of Victor Lindelof two years ago and the arrival of Harry Maguire this summer. There are even reports that there is a clause in Bailly’s contract which means the club can extend his commitment to the club for a further two years, whether that is true or not, I don’t know.

An apparent source from the Old Trafford club spoke to the media, where it was relayed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a fan of the player and that he is still wanted at the club. Personally, I see Lindelof and Maguire as the first-choice partnership right now with Axel Tuanzebe ahead of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Marcos Rojo seems unwanted. The source said:

“The club want Eric to stay and are looking for talks about an extension.

“We don’t want to lose him on a free transfer next summer. It’s just down to both parties agreeing to everything.

“His injury record isn’t a major concern for us. We just think he has been unlucky with everyone over the last few years.

“Ole is a fan of the player and we’re going to convince him to stay, at least that is the plan at present.”

The report states that Bailly will be free to discuss moves with other European clubs from the 1 January 2020, which will only be true if his extra year, which was an agreement in his contract which was signed in 2016 is not activated. Obviously, just like David De Gea’s clause, it will be activated if talks extend into the Christmas period.

However, with nothing else for Bailly to do during his period of recovery, he will most likely have the time to talk about a possible renewal and when he has recovered and is fit to play again, he can work on winning a place in the team once more. Bailly, when fit, is a capable central defender who in his first season at the club, did well to establish himself.

copyright: JW