As Eric Bailly walked onto the pitch to mark his 50th appearance with Manchester United, Red Devil fans collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Our prized centre-back has returned! After a strong start to his sophomore season with the club, the Ivorian defender picked up a serious ankle sprain while on international duty in November that would ultimately sideline him from club appearances for three months. What a long three months it has been. Bailly’s absence has forced José Mourinho to make some creative changes at the back, primarily relying on Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to be the last line of defense in the middle before David De Gea. However, as Bailly came on to replace new United number 7 Alexis Sánchez, it led me to think: could Bailly in a center midfield role be Mourinho’s missing link in a 4-3-3 lineup? Allow me to explain myself.
First of all, I understand that our defensive needs supersede the midfield demands. While Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have bossed in their roles at the back, Bailly’s return will relieve several defensive missteps and bring some renewed confidence to his teammates. Nevertheless, injuries continue to disturb the midfield, as reports now indicate that Ander Herrera will be out for up to six weeks due to a hamstring affliction sustained during United’s Champions League draw against Sevilla. For those counting, this brings the total to six United players on the injury list. When healthy and fit, Bailly is rarely out of form. Looking at United’s starting defensive midfielders, Nemanja Matić has been overplayed and thus his form has slipped. While playing a fine job in his role, important upcoming match fixtures could exhaust him. Bailly is more mobile than Matić, and more aggressive than either Scott McTominay or Paul Pogba. Center midfield may be even in more need of him than the back line, between now and at the end of the season at least. Even if it’s just while he continues to heal, Bailly entering as a sub for Matić is not a bad thought.
Temporary formation fix
Mourinho’s lineup against Chelsea was the familiar 4-3-3 formation, with Pogba and Matić starting and Juan Mata on the bench. There’s been discussion on this very blog if the 4-3-3 lineup is the winning recipe. As evidenced by January’s Everton win and last Sunday’s victory against the Blues, the arrangement is worth considering in future matches. The versatility of United players has always been recognized by analysts, and it’s a key asset as injuries occur or if the lineup is in need of a refresh. As we (impatiently) wait until the summer to see what moves Mourinho makes for the midfield, intermittently designating Bailly as the third man to complete the midfield option won’t stall United’s play. On the contrary, it allows for Pogba to remain as an offensive powerhouse rather than constantly dropping back when opposing counter attacks ensue.
More playing time for other CBs
While at times detrimental to United’s team performance, Bailly’s injury has come at the benefit of Victor Lindelöf, who started in his third consecutive match for the Red Devils. While his first year has been somewhat of a roller coaster, his defensive instincts are beginning to take shape. In the final seconds of Sunday’s match against Chelsea, the Blues were awarded a dangerous corner, and a final hope to split the points. Lindelöf turned to his surrounding teammates and shouted, “Use your head!” One attentive supporter observed the exchange live. For a player who hasn’t been well received by the fanbase in his first year at Old Trafford, credit to the Swedish international for encouraging his mates to remain focused on closing the match with the full three points. Antonio Valencia’s guidance certainly isn’t overlooked, but Lindelöf’s poise in that moment is an acceptable argument for more playing time. With Bailly in the middle, it opens up a centre-back role for Lindelöf to occupy along with Marcos Rojos when he eventually makes a full-time return to Mourinho’s starting XI.
Allow me to reiterate by saying, Eric Bailly should not be a set addition to Manchester United’s midfield group. Moving our best defender out of position should not be interpreted as a permanent solution. However, there are some benefits that come with allowing him to explore options outside of the centre-back role, and Mourinho should consider those as he sets his lineups for upcoming matches. Bailly has proven that he is capable of performing his defensive duties in key fixtures, so the challenge of assuming more responsibilities at the midfield allows for diversity of talent and more importantly, wins for José Mourinho.