COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
The appointment of a new manager naturally brings about an upturn in players' performances, and it was certainly expected that playing personnel at Manchester United would thrive once they had seen the back of the doom and gloom of Jose Mourinho's regime.
Results have been good since mid-December and, even more importantly, the performances have followed.
United’s final fixture of 2018, against an out-of-sorts Bournemouth, was going well until a crude Eric Bailly tackle tainted what was a near perfect evening at Old Trafford as the resurgent Red Devils won 4-1.
So much is made about the importance of first impressions, and how much they can go a long way in people’s opinion down the line, so that moment might prove to be one to forget for the central defender.
Having failed to come off the bench in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first pair of games in charge, against Cardiff (5-1) and Huddersfield Town (3-1), the Ivory Coast international finally got his chance against the Cherries, replacing Phil Jones in the starting XI.
With Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo sidelined through injury, Solskjaer couldn’t afford losing another centre-back given his dearth of options in that position.
However, given the course of events in United’s final game of 2018, could Lee Mason’s dismissal of the returning defender be attributed to a bit of bad luck?
With the clock having just gone past the 36th-minute mark and half-time nearing, Ashley Young’s overly forceful challenge on Josh King, which saw the right-back get in the book, might have passed as strike one.
A few minutes later Bailly made a mildly strong, yet fair, tackle on the same player.
In the second-half, and only a few minutes before receiving his marching orders, the centre-back was involved in an unspotted flashpoint with Charlie Daniels. Having cleared the ball away from harm’s way, the defender’s foot inadvertently caught the Englishman chest high.
Mason may have failed to spot it in real time, but Bailly was lucky to still be on the pitch as the challenge fell into the ‘seen them given’ category, and the fourth official may have communicated that to the ref.
Perhaps those scenarios ensured Mason didn't think twice before brandishing the red card after the Ivorian’s reckless tackle on Ryan Fraser – less than 10 minutes after the Daniels incident. While some officials might have simply booked the defender, the fact that Bailly had got away with a couple of incidents during the encounter left the ref with no other choice than to send the defender in for an early bath.
The sending off has intensified calls for the Manchester giants to strengthen in defence (after all, Solskjaer has only two fit central defenders), at the African’s expense.
However, the dismissal shouldn’t taint what was actually a reasonably good defensive performance from the West African, who had impressed upon his return to the side.
He made regular blocks and clearances, which prevented Eddie Howe’s side from scoring more than once.
Two instances, in each half, particularly illustrated this: in first-half stoppage time, he made a last-ditch block to prevent a low Junior Stanislas cross from making its way to either Callum Wilson or King, while a really impressive block stopped the latter’s goal-bound effort from going on target.
United may have been 3-1 in front at the time of King's second-half effort, but having their lead halved with 20 minutes left on the clock might have brought about some nerves. Howe’s side had an expected goals of 0.50 in the encounter and that meager figure was, in part, down to the heroics of Bailly who proved that, irrespective of his over-exuberance, he can still show his undoubted quality on occasion.
Electing to dip into the transfer coffers to strengthen at the back, with Kalidou Koulibaly linked with a move to Old Trafford, would further shatter the confidence of a defender who went from being both solid and spectacular at times in his early days at United to tentative and error-strewn in the last few months under Mourinho.
What Bailly needs right now is an arm around the shoulder from someone willing to help him play to the best of his ability, and not a signing that’ll push him down the pecking order at Carrington.
In Solskjaer, he may well get that.