Eric Bailly arrived at Manchester United in 2016 with an impressive reputation but slight pressure. The first player signed under the now-defunct José Mourinho era, United nabbed him on a four-year, £30 million deal from Villareal.
At his age, the expectation was Bailly would improve as his career progressed at Old Trafford. Unfortunately, the 24-year-old has not only failed to improve, but is possibly regressing, and his time at United could be running its course.
Bailly is popular with the United fanbase, with many believing they see real potential in the Ivorian international. Concern is, his efforts are inconsistent, and that poses a problem for the team that interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking to build. Normally at centre-back, Bailly was given right-back responsibilities during United’s second leg contest against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. That proved to be a mistake, as he was responsible for gifting PSG their opening goal after striker Romelu Lukaku put United up one early into the game.
Solskjaer ultimately subbed Bailly off with 10 minutes to go in the first half, and viewers watched him limp off in defeat. Although, he didn’t put up a convincing argument that he actually picked up a knock in the 35 minutes he spent on the pitch.
This is the second time this campaign Bailly has been pulled from the pitch before halftime. When Mourinho was at the helm, the Portuguese removed Bailly just 18 minutes into United’s comeback win against Newcastle in October 2018. For someone touted as the Red Devils’ long term centre-back option, his lack of form is problematic. Bailly not only lacks consistency, but is also showing signs of being seriously injury-prone.
Victor Lindelöf has been impressive as of late, and has played the best football of his United career alongside veteran Chris Smalling. Bailly had the opportunity to show he was qualified to suit up next to the Swedish international. Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered thanks to a gaffe that only Bailly can claim responsibility for.
The two were paired on December 30 against Bournemouth in the Premier League. Both fulfilled their responsibilities and led their side to a 4-1 victory. However, an unnecessarily aggressive tackle on Ryan Fraser in the 79th minute led to a red card for Bailly and subsequent three match ban. For one of the rare players not to find their groove under the new caretaker manager, the consequences for the challenge proved to be much worse than a few suspended games.
Is Bailly’s poor form a cause for concern as United gear up for a busy summer transfer window? While not the biggest issue weighing on Ed Woodward and the Glazer family, the troubled defender isn’t making the argument that it is best to keep him in Manchester to play through the final year of his contract. There’s no denying United are in desperate need of a defensive overhaul, especially as it seems veteran right-back Antonio Valencia is all but gone at Old Trafford once the window opens.
Perhaps the one advantage Bailly has in this debate is that he’s not Marcos Rojo, who has only had three showings this year, the most recent being December 12 when United suffered a 2-1 Champions League defeat against Valencia. Given how serious United is about regaining top-of-the-table status, the decision to offload the questionably fit Argentinian may come before ridding themselves of Bailly. Rojo still has two years remaining on his current contract.
As for who the front office could target to possibly replace Bailly, Manchester Evening News reported in February that Kalidou Koulibaly, Joachim Andersen and Milan Skriniar are on Woodward’s radar. All three hail from Serie A, and their talents fit the demanding qualifications of a Manchester United player. As the Red Devils deviate from a dated playing style to a more contemporary approach, these three are worthy of consideration, since they align with Solskjaer’s mentality of playing a more attacking role during games while being undeterred from pressure.
Eric Bailly remains frustrating to watch on occasion with his inexperience exposed against more skillful attacking lines. In spite of that, there remains suggestions of a player who could learn from his gaffes and eventually emerge as one of the better defenders in the post-Sir Alex years. The question is whether United can afford to be still be patient with yet another unreliable center back if they mean to challenge for trophies again.