COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
When Jose Mourinho convinced the Manchester United board to part with a fairly decent sum of money – rumoured to be in the range of £30 million – for the purchase of a 22-year old Eric Bailly from Villarreal in the summer of 2016, it showed their desire to back the Portuguese boss.
The budding centre-back’s purchase was the first signing the Manchester giants made under the new regime, and it signified their ambition to kick on from Louis van Gaal’s management as they aimed to challenge for major silverware again.
Irrespective of the fact that the Red Devils had just signed a raw, inexperienced defender who’d only emerged at El Madrigal; the relatively low finances involved didn’t see the Ivorian’s deal met with so much scrutiny.
Jose, for his part, was happy to secure his target and seemed unfazed with his untested buy, electing to see the bigger picture and bask in the centre-back’s talent and potential.
“Eric is a young central defender with great natural talent,” Mourinho said. “He has progressed well to date and has the potential to become one of the best around.
"We look forward to working with him to help nurture that raw talent and fulfill his potential. Eric is at the right club to continue his development.”
It was a massive show of confidence by the decorated manager, and Bailly repaid that faith and trust by storming out of the blocks in his first month of competitive football in Manchester.
The defender’s impressive start – which saw him named Man of the Match in the Red Devils’ 2-1 Community Shield win over Leicester City, as well as on his Premier League debut against Bournemouth a week later – was proof of that.
Deservedly, Bailly was rewarded with being named Manchester United Player of the Month award for August, and he continued that form for the better part of the 2016/17 campaign.
It wasn’t the best domestic season for England’s most accomplished club, who finished sixth, but they went on to claim their first Europa League title which gave that year an embellished feel of success. On an individual note, former Villarreal man was named in the UEL’s squad of the season, owing to his “dominant defensive play” throughout the tournament.
Bailly was slowly establishing himself as United’s best centre-back and it seemed like he’ll push on from his debut season in England. However, a glut of niggling injuries stunted his development last year, evidenced in the fact that he could only make 13 league appearances as the Manchester giants ended second to their municipal rivals Manchester City.
Seeing that his central defensive options seemed to suffer their fair share of physical damage intermittently, Mourinho made beefing up that area of the side a major mission in last summer’s transfer window.
On the one hand, wanting to improve the side isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, when you consider it was going to leave several disgruntled players in the side, it wasn’t tactful making his needs so public.
As it turned out, the Portuguese coach didn’t get any of the several central defenders United were linked to (a list that included Toby Alderweireld, Jerome Boateng and Diego Godin) and that left him with a dressing room full of defenders who knew full they weren’t trusted by their manager.
Events in the summer could well be linked to the cascade of error-strewn defensive performances that plagued Mourinho’s United in the final months of his time at the club.
For Bailly, he started the first two games of the season against Leicester and that ill-fated 3-2 defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion. It was a diabolical defensive display by the away side, with the Ivory Coast international culpable for at least two of the Seagulls’ goals on the day.
What then followed was him being shown the cold shoulder in the ensuing months, as the erratic Mourinho chopped and changed personnel in his rearguard.
A consequence of a poor outing at Brighton saw Bailly left out of the squad that was embarrassed 3-0 by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in the very next game. While he was reinstated to the 18 for games against Burnley (2-0 win) and Watford (2-1 win), the centre-back only had a laughable minute of action in both games, which raised a few eyebrows.
The Ivorian didn’t start in the league until his humiliation against Newcastle United in early October, but it’ll be interesting to have a refresher on events beforehand.
He did feature in United’s League Cup defeat against Derby County, a game that had him as one of the home side’s best performers, and definitely the best defender.
However, Bailly was then dropped to the bench in the Red Devils’ 3-1 loss at West Ham United, a match that amusingly saw Mourinho play a natural midfielder, Scott McTominay, at the back in a three-man defence, at the expense of the shunned defender.
The former Villarreal player then responded with a Man of the Match performance against Valencia at Old Trafford with United keeping a clean sheet in a goalless draw.
His reinstatement into the XI against the Magpies lasted only 19 minutes (!) before his sudden withdrawal, as yet again, he was made the fall guy for a terrible start that saw Rafael Benitez’s charges race into a two-goal lead.
Mourinho’s side rallied to win the rip-roaring affair 3-2, but Bailly didn’t feature in the league again until the 2-2 draw against Arsenal early this month. He wasn’t initially planned to feature in Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool, but had to fill in for Chris Smalling who was injured in the warm ups.
Whatever they may say, I will always be thankful to the person who gave me the chance to make my debut at Old Trafford. Thank you for what you have taught me. Good luck, coach. pic.twitter.com/Xj2IZJuYxu — Eric Bailly (@ericbailly24) December 19, 2018
With the change in the Old Trafford hotseat since the aforementioned Anfield defeat, the centre-back has a chance to rebuild his shattered confidence under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Bailly may have fallen from grace in the last few months under the impulsive, hostile, and rightly jettisoned Mourinho, but expect him to be handed a new lease of life under the new regime as he aims to get his United career back on course.