Manchester United’s defensive dilemma is a bit weird right now.
The Red Devils have loads of central defenders. They’ve spent a lot of money on them in recent years, and actually managed to improve last season with the addition of Harry Maguire, an £80m signing who was made club captain a mere six months after joining.
With Maguire essentially ever-present, they conceded the third fewest goals in the Premier League last season (36) behind just Manchester City (35) and Liverpool (33). They actually took big results in big games, owing to solid defensive performances and a sharp attack.
But those numbers doesn’t tell the full story.
United have also looked wildly disorganised in certain moments, and easily beatable in games that they should’ve been dominating. It’s a trend that’s continued through the back end of last season and into this campaign, with the home defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend setting the alarm bells ringing again. The defence still needs serious work.
Maguire’s influence as a captain on the field is clear and his performances have fit the bill too, for the most part. He was by no means perfect though, and some have put his struggles down to the poor form of centre-back partner Victor Lindelof.
The ideal centre-back partnership doesn’t just form overnight, but this one has had enough time.
It seems United will be best placed by buying a new candidate to fill in at centre back for the long term, though finding a new face that fits in what remains of the current transfer window doesn’t seem achievable – especially so, considering the pace United actually work at when it comes to pulling off deals.
United will instead need to find an option from within to plug the gap, and Eric Bailly can be that man in the short-term.
Since signing for £30m in 2016 as a largely unknown name, Bailly has endured a hit-and-miss time at Old Trafford. A serious knee injury in October 2016 ended his debut season prematurely, which has seemingly set off a cycle of repeated knee and ankle injuries that continue to plague him.
He’s yet to make more than 20 appearances in all competitions for the club in a single season as a result of his injuries, and managed just 12 appearances in the latter stages of last term as he recovered from knee surgery. Be it terrible luck with fitness or a consequence of the aggressive and erratic game he plays on the pitch, it’s a truly unfortunate state of affairs for Bailly.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that at one point, Bailly looked like the answer to all of United’s problems at the back – and arguably still does whenever he can put together a run of games. He looked solid at the back end of last season, but yet another injury in the FA Cup semi-final ended his campaign. He’s managed to recover in time for this season though, which is why he’s the man to replace Lindelof in the starting XI and partner up with Maguire.
The Sweden international has proved about as useful as The Ultimate Warrior in WWE; great to look at, but not so great at his actual job. Maguire’s composure alongside Bailly would help the Ivorian channel his abilities better and hopefully lead to slightly fewer ridiculous tackles that result in muscular injury, immediately getting more out of him than United will ever get out of Lindelof.
There’s a case to suggest that Bailly’s injury record makes him far too much of a liability and that one of the young guns should be given the chance to step up instead. It’s a fair argument, but also a flawed one. Brandon Williams looked excellent last season, but struggled for consistency after being relied upon too much at times, seemingly running out of steam. Throwing in a largely inexperienced Teden Mengi could prove calamitous for his confidence as he still needs to develop, whereas Bailly has the experience to deal with the pressure.
It’s not to say that Mengi – or even Axel Tuanzebe – shouldn’t feature this season, but using them in moderation, occasionally rotating with Bailly, gets the best out of all three defenders.
United fans know what makes Bailly so good on his day. He’s shown glimpses of that sheer quality in drips and drabs, but his poor injury record will likely limit it from ever being more than short-term phases of success. But that short-term success is exactly what United need this season; if he can stay fit enough to be a regular fixture, it will go a long way in plugging the gap while United find a long-term replacement to sign next summer.