When Manchester United signed the relatively unknown Eric Bailly from Villarreal this summer, fans weren’t necessarily sure of what to expect. Here was a 22-year old playing in Spain, Jose Mourinho’s first purchase since becoming the club’s manager purchasing a young, inexperienced centre back. Bolstering the centre of defence was something that Louis van Gaal failed to do sufficiently during his time at United, and Mourinho’s initial words on the transfer to MUTV were less-than encouraging.
“He comes from a Spanish culture where the first phases are important so technically he’s very good. For some periods, he played right-back and, because playing in the right-back position demands more from an attacking point of view, it’s good for a centre-back to play some periods as a right-back.
“My only question mark at the moment is one I have to help him delete – the question mark of someone who has never played at such a big club with so many responsibilities and so many expectations.
“So is Eric ready to come here and start performing from day one? I don’t know. It is a question mark but my job is to delete that question mark as soon as possible and give him the stature, brain and personality to play for Manchester United.”
As endorsements go, it was honest. Mourinho admired his ability but wasn’t sure about how quickly he could adjust to the level being asked of him.
It’s too tough to tell if Bailly will be an unmitigated success at United, but the early signs are very positive. Amidst a few reckless challenges, there has been strength, a physical presence, excellent ball work and a comfortingly uncompromising attitude. So much so that the Ivorian is now in with a good shot of nailing down a centre back slot for this season, should this level of performance continue.
As such, it means United must also plan ahead. Given that Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are now almost certainly surplus to requirements, once Bailly leaves for the African Cup of Nations in January, United could be down to just Chris Smalling and Daley Blind as available centre backs, meaning that the need to bring in another centre back if Jones and Rojo are to leave becomes important. Jose Fonte is a name we’ve heard linked with United this week, and his leadership and experience could prove to be invaluable this season, especially at the start of 2017 when Bailly is away with the Ivory Coast, because if this form continues, then his absence will be sorely felt.