Eric Bailly’s injury during Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Chelsea last Sunday was the icing on top of a terrible cake. The Ivorian, one of few consistent brightspots in United’s starting XI’s under Jose Mourinho this season, and arguably the club’s best performing summer signing damaged cruciate ligaments in his knee at Stamford Bridge, and will face at least two months on the sidelines in order to allow for a full recovery.
If that wasn’t enough, Mourinho has also confirmed in his programme notes ahead of Wednesday’s EFL Cup clash with Manchester City that Phil Jones has returned to the treatment table one again, as per the following quote from Squawka: “We have problems and the biggest is that Bailly will miss many matches. The same applies to Phil Jones.”
This is a particularly unhelpful time for United to be short of central defenders, especially after Sunday’s drubbing proved that Mourinho doesn’t have quite the solidity and strength in defence than most fans would have assumed. Chris Smalling was at least partly at fault for all four goals, and Daley Blind was off the pace all afternoon. By contrast, Bailly has looked likely, committed and powerful all season long, and has arguably been United’s most dependable defender so far this season.
His absence wouldn’t be quite so troubling if United’s alternatives weren’t so inconsistent. Blind is a technically gifted but physically limited player who can perform in the role, but isn’t a particular presence in defence. Smalling proved on Sunday that he still has some way to go before he can join the great tradition of strong United centre backs, and even when these two have been paired together, their limitations were starkly exposed under Louis van Gaal last season when his team didn’t play with two protective defensive midfielders in front of them.
Marcos Rojo is the other natural candidate, but the Argentine has had persistent struggles with both form and fitness since his move from Sporting Lisbon in 2014, which means that United’s centre back options are neither plentiful nor dependable.
It’s a measure of how Jones is perceived by the club’s fans that his absence through injury once again doesn’t come as a shock, and is met by derision and laughter. Jones has suffered numerous injuries over the last few seasons and made just thirteen appearances under Van Gaal last season, with many fans assuming that this past summer was the time to move on the former England international. Mourinho gave the former Blackburn Rovers player a chance, but given his incredible record when it comes to maintaining fitness, it seems like that faith was misplaced.