Ever since Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand left Old Trafford, Manchester United didn't have a truly reliable and consistent center back and that was a major issue during Louis van Gaal's ill-fated tenure. Chris Smalling had a pretty good 2015/16 season but is prone to episodes of carelessness; Marcos Rojo is at his best a useful CB and at his worst a torrid time for any supporter; Daley Blind works hard and has a pretty nice touch with the ball on his feet, but is not a CB; Phil Jones cannot stay healthy even if you pray to the Old Gods and the New.
Then Eric Bertrand Bailly came to the scene and we were reminded of how good it was to have a highly talented defender to bail us out and give us balance. Sure, he’s a bit edgy on some tackles and not the full product yet, but Bailly is a major improvement on a zone that was really in need of it. And he clogged Jamie Vardy in a wonderful manner against Leicester, which is always nice.
José Mourinho would likely want to sign another CB in the summer - probably a more experienced one considering that Bailly is, despite his great performances so far this season, only 22 years old (although the Victor Lindelöf rumors in January might suggest that experience would not be José's main concern). Regardless, this season is far from being finished and with United fighting on four fronts, it's important to have a clear idea of who should be the Ivorian's partner on the defense for the most important matches. So let's see the possible combinations:
Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling
The one partnership Mourinho has been using the most these last few matches. Both Bailly and Smalling are very similar but yet so different on the same time: both are physically strong, both are tall, both have a pretty aggressive way of defending and both are pretty damn good in the air.
So far, so good, so what?, like Megadeth said, but, sadly, Smalling, bless him, can play well for 89 minutes of the match and the other minute would be causing a penalty, missing a key pass or doing any other shenanigan that may cause United to lose points (Newcastle away last season is still haunting yours truly).
Granted, all CBs can make mistakes; even Maldini made mistakes at his peak. But Smalling is 27 years old now and it's not looking very likely he would grow from here. Add his bad passing to the equation and you have the potential for him to ruin a perfect defending job - the kind of defending that Mourinho likes (parking the bus, some call it).
Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo
Now, this particular aspect of The Busby Babe is going to admit he is not very fond of Marcos Rojo. While the former Estudiantes defender has been very decent so far this season, making a very solid partnership with Phil Jones during Bailly's month away with his national team, his propensity for late tackles and overall aggressive playing style might not fit too much with Bailly's already physical (and much more polished and developed) defending style.
Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe
A man can dream, right?
Eric Bailly and Daley Blind
The partnership that started this season and the one that broke up after United's more than dubious display against Pep Guardiola's, A.K.A. The Philosopher, Manchester City side. And while Daley Blind, despite playing the position during his formative years at Ajax and last season under Louis van Gaal, is not a CB, he has proven to be useful in that role providing timing, good positioning and using his brilliant passing and vision to start attacks; considering that Mourinho's United is much more offensive than van Gaal's, this is a pretty good trait.
The Bailly-Blind binomial is one of the most enjoyable and offensive-minded alternatives because of the reasons explained on the previous paragraph: it becomes a partnership set to start attacks because Bailly is not too shabby with the ball on his feet, either. They both complement very well also due to one's speed and physical prowess and the other's passing, timing and vision.
Sadly, Blind's lack of size and speed makes him a very tempting for the Harry Kanes, Sergio Agüeros and, if we get Champions League football, the Robert Lewandowskis of the world. It's not this writer's criticism of Blind; it's last season proving that Blind perhaps is not the best option for every match, but definitely for some when the rival is sitting back.
Eric Bailly and Phil Jones
Correct me if I'm wrong, but these two have never played together, right? I don't recall at the moment. Regardless, so much has been said about Phil Jones' constant injuries that we almost forget that he is, for better or worse, United's best CB after Bailly. We don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, much like the Trump presidency. But let's not go there.
From my point of view, considering United's current options, this is the most reliable partnership if it weren't for Jones' fitness issues. The former Blackburn man is certainly no Mats Hummels with the ball on his feet, but he knows his limitations and makes some safe passes rather than losing possession (van Gaal must be so proud of him). He has a pretty good timing and, much like Bailly and his former teacher, Nemanja Vidić, he is not afraid of doing some savage tackles or putting his head where others wouldn't even think of doing it (do I need to remind you that glorious tackle against Giroud?).
The downside of this partnership is the inability of one of his halves to stay healthy and that could be Phil Jones' downfall as a footballer at the long term: not being able to surpass these injury issues. But he is still only 24. We don't know how, but he is still only freaking 24.
Eric Bailly and Timothy Fosu-Mensah
If Timbo gets to be developed as a CB, this partnership has the potential to be much cooler and effective than the entire The Dark Tower series. But Mourinho has been using the Dutchman as a right-back and as a midfielder, so it's not looking very likely.
Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones
TO HELL WITH ERIC BAILLY!!! Who does he think he is, taking the spotlight in this article? You know what, Eric? We don't need you! We won nine matches in a row with Rojo and Jones as our CBs, so they must be the solution, right? RIGHT!?
How do you like that, ERIC!?
Anyway, we'll leave it to you because the fans are always right (that's what Arsenal Fan TV taught us over the years). Who do you think should partner Eric Bailly in United's defense?