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The curious case of Eric Bailly’s Manchester United career

He was José Mourinho’s first signing, now the once favored centre-back could be making an exit in January.

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Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League

Currently sitting 12 points behind reigning Premier League champions and top of the table leaders Manchester City, it’s clear Manchester United must perform a rather aggressive personnel overhaul in January if they plan on concluding the 2018/2019 campaign with a top 4 finish.

Not only does that mean offering forward Anthony Martial and keeper David De Gea lucrative contract extensions, but also strengthening the defense in a way that rivals the talent of their Big Six foes. Case in point, it’s time to look beyond the skillful but seasoned Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia and opt for some long-term support who can grow with the other members of the starting XI.

That was the plan two years ago when José Mourinho was first appointed the boss of the most accomplished club in England. Less than two weeks into his new role, the Portuguese brought on Eric Bailly, a then-22 year old centre-back from Villarreal. The Cote d’Ivoire international agreed to a four-year, £30 million deal, with an option to stay for an additional two years. A fair upgrade from the reigning CB duo in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, Bailly would always hold the title of being the first player to arrive at Old Trafford in the Mourinho era.

Since then, unfortunately, his story has been less than a fairytale adventure. With the January transfer window on the horizon, his time with the club could be cut short long before the Ivorian can write his own ending.

According to The Telegraph, the Special One is keen on selling both Bailly and fellow CB Marcos Rojo in an attempt to buy a new CB in January. Earlier this year, United extended Rojo’s contract until 2021, continuing the Argentinian’s tenure in a red kit.

Nicky Butt, a member of United’s 1998/1999 treble-winning squad, did not mince words when asked about the challenges Mourinho & company face following Sunday’s 3-1 defeat in the Manchester derby.

“I think every now and again you come up against a team that are too good for you,” Butt explained at the international player care conference in London on Monday in a honest acknowledgement about the Citizen’s reign. “Every now and again you have got to hold your hands up and say they are a better team than us, better players than us, too good for every team in the Premier League to be honest, and they are as good as any team in Europe.”

The former England international is not wrong. Compared to their neighbors, United possess no direction, depth or intensity as a club eager to move upward. The display in one match is vastly different from the next, leaving fans questioning what kind of United performance they will be treated to that day.

Through 12 games, United have maintained just one clean sheet, and only bottom-of-the-table Burnley have allowed more than the 21 goals the Red Devils have conceded thus far.

However, that remains no fault of Bailly, who as of late has maintained a comfortable spot on the United bench. Across all competitions this campaign, Bailly has graced the pitch a mere seven times, with his last appearance being involved in United’s thrilling 3-2 win against Newcastle in October. With Arsenal and AC Milan ready to open their pocketbooks, Bailly’s absence could pose a greater motivation for him to pack his belongings for either North London or Italy.

Fearing that they’ve lost Mourinho’s faith is a constant concern amongst his men, which of course contributed to Bailly’s long absence from the starting XI, at times even the matchday squad. Never at loss for words, Mourinho criticized his inaugural signing following United’s 3-2 defeat at Brighton in August, a rare instance of conflict between the two.

Has Bailly’s health been as consistent as the rest of his mates? Of course not. The ankle sprain he suffered while on international duty over a year ago required surgery, and then 2-3 months of rehabilitation. Unable to find stability following his return, fans and critics may concede that his (lack of) health is enough justification for his departure in the new year. When in form, his defensive abilities are unparalleled, and Mou rightly deserves some recognition for acquiring what could have been this generation’s Rio Ferdinand.

Mourinho’s favoritism is probably one of the most frustrating parts about his managerial strategy. Nemanja Matić, who has soiled the midfield with boredom and mediocrity this year is a guaranteed starter, yet Bailly’s individual performance against The Magpies saw him banished from the team.

With reports of Valencia and Young — who are both ten years Bailly’s senior — set to stay at Old Trafford for another year, the decision to offload Bailly could be a risky arrangement. There’s no guarantee that the likes of Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld or Inter’s Milan Škriniar would join a side that if the season ended today wouldn’t even be Europa League competitors. Still, there is some uncertainty in Eric Bailly’s future with Manchester United, and it’s likely he may be riding his final months at Old Trafford on borrowed time.