Manchester United fans have been blessed to have seen some great centre-backs over the last thirty years, from Paul McGrath, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and the mighty Dutchman Jaap Stam, to perhaps the finest pairing any modern club has fielded in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
The Englishman and the Serb were perhaps the perfect partnership, the former providing the pace and technical excellence that made him arguably his nation’s and United’s greatest ever centre back, whilst Vidic provided the brawn, a fearless no-nonsense defender of the ‘thou shall not pass’ variety. Together they marshalled their club to five Premier League titles, two League Cups and the Champions League on that unforgettable night in Moscow in 2008. United fans could be forgiven for taking such defensive excellence for granted.
In Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season at United the legendary manager coaxed one final glorious campaign out of his most experienced players. At 34/35 Ferdinand played 34 times that season whilst Vidic, struggling with injury, played 23 times and helped provide security at the back in the title run-in as Robin Van Persie fired his side to glory. The following year, with Fergie gone, replaced by the hapless David Moyes, it was clear that both centre-backs’ bodies were in rapid decline as the defensive surety almost taken for granted deserted the team. Sir Alex had attempted to prepare for this eventuality by recruiting Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at relatively young ages, but it was clear that neither were ready to provide top class performances, despite the Scot describing the latter as potentially ‘the best player the club has ever had’. By the summer of 2014 both Ferdinand and Vidic were gone, to Queens Park Rangers and Internazionale respectively.
As time has passed since those years of defensive excellence United fans can be forgiven for forgetting what a top level centre-back looks like. An array of names have been used in the position, particularly in the two years that Louis Van Gaal was at the helm. Jones, Smalling, Jonny Evans, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Michael Carrick have all started at the heart of the defence with mixed results. Most have been wholly inadequate. Last season, a desperately conservative United conceded only thirty-five goals, leading some to opine that Chris Smalling in particular had developed into a top-level centre-half. The stats were, however, somewhat misleading and hid the fact that every time the team threw off its conservatism, either by design or necessity, a more exposed defence often crumbled. Smalling in particular suffered in the second half of the campaign, never recovering from a difficult night in Germany as United were defeated 3-2 by Wolfsburg and eliminated from the Champions League. Prone to lapses of concentration and below average with the ball at his feet, the former Fulham defender has undoubtedly made significant improvements to his game, but remains short of the very best. However, with little defensive quality around him it is not easy to see why some fans began to overrate Smalling. He was arguably United’s best defender last season and in the absence of a truly exceptional reference point it is easy to overstate a player’s ability, a phenomenon regularly apparent at Liverpool over the last 25 years. It is only when a truly top class talent is introduced to the ranks that a more accurate judgement can be made.
Enter stage left Eric Bailly, acquired for a fee which could reach approximately £30m with add-ons from Villarreal, the least heralded of Jose Mourinho’s four key signings this summer. The Ivorian has enjoyed a remarkable rise, coming to Europe at 17 to join Espanyol, but unable to play for nine months as he lacked the requisite work permit. After 21 appearances for the Spaniard’s B team in Segunda B, he was promoted to the senior ranks in October 2014. 5 appearances and three short months later Villarreal paid €5.7m for his services. His talent was immediately obvious to La Liga watchers, although impetuosity led to disciplinary problems. After making 51 appearances over eighteen months for the Yellow Submarine, United’s new manager Mourinho swooped to make him his first signing. The fee was staggering for a player with so few games under his belt and even his new coach stated in pre-season that he was unsure how ready Bailly was to start Premier League games. The signing had many supporters turning to Google to learn about a player they had scarcely heard of.
A promising pre-season led to Bailly being selected to start in the Community Shield at Wembley against Leicester City. That impetuous streak was still present as the Ivorian tried to nullify the pace and talent of Jamie Vardy, but the centre back’s performance saw him named Man-of-the-Match. After three seasons of watching relatively average defensive performances, Bailly’s individual qualities stand out like a sore thumb. He combines pace, power, athleticism and excellent anticipation with a prodigious leap and good ability with the ball at his feet. He is clearly a rough diamond, but his natural ability is obvious to all who have watched him in his brief time at United.
A week later, against Bournemouth, Bailly once again excelled alongside the fine footballing brain of Daley Blind, the two forming an unlikely but so far successful defensive partnership. United’s 3-1 victory was built in defensive solidity, against an opponent who embarrassed Louis Van Gaal’s team on the same pitch last season. On Sunday, confidence in the back four behind them allowed United’s attacking players to commit forward in numbers, an action which would have resulted in the concession of goals last campaign. The result was a three goal haul away from home, something which the Dutchman’s side only managed four times in two seasons. When Bournemouth scored Van Gaal’s side would have panicked, but there was no such response from Mourinho’s outfit. Bailly and Blind kept their shape and composure and United saw out the game comfortably. Much like Vidic and Ferdinand, the Ivorian and the Dutchman compliment each other well, the former offering pace, athleticism and aerial ability and the latter overcoming a lack of pace with fine positioning and excellent distribution. Tougher tests await, but the potential both in Bailly and the partnership with Blind is clear.
Bailly won his second successive Man-of-the-Match award for his performance at Bournemouth and earned rave reviews from journalists and pundits. He will no doubt make mistakes, and disciplinary issues are clearly not eradicated from his game as some late challenges have demonstrated, but the enormous potential is evident even at this early stage of his United career. He has given us a glimpse of the standard of centre back the club previously had, before Vidic and Ferdinand departed, providing a level of performance many had forgotten was possible. This led some to overrate the likes of Chris Smalling. Yet suddenly it is apparent that United can expect better and it is Smalling who finds himself on the outside looking in. Bailly’s emergence appears to have brought the best out in Daley Blind, whose physical inadequacies are to a degree mitigated by the athletic strengths of his new partner. In turn, Blind’s intelligence and guidance has aided Bailly’s assimilation into English football. Whereas Smalling was the first defensive name on the teamsheet in the eyes of most United fans, few are now clamouring for his return. Eric Bailly has only been at United for a few weeks but has already reminded us of the quality we should be demanding in our centre backs and could turn out to be the most important signing Jose Mourinho has made in his first summer at the club. Given that the competition is Zlatan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba that would be some achievement.