Given all that has transpired, on the pitch but mostly off it, in the course of Eric Bailly’s Manchester United career, it is easy to understate that the biggest toll on the powerful centre-back might be a mental one.
It has been three years since the 25-year-old joined from Villarreal, raw but with plenty of promise and upside. At the time, the thinking was that, under the guiding hand of Jose Mourinho, his attributes would be utilized optimally; a layer of polish and a lick of paint on his rough edges, but also the option of his pace and agility enabling a more front-foot defensive style.
There have even been flashes of that.
Perhaps Bailly’s finest showing in a United shirt came in the North West derby of March 2018, when he was at the centre of a trademark Mourinho rearguard action that saw the Red Devils win out 2-1 at Old Trafford. That he also scored an own-goal in the middle of that dominant showing – complete with an audacious pirouette past Mohamed Salah in the first half – perhaps serves to heighten the sense of misfortune that has dogged his time in Manchester.
In the two seasons preceding his move to England, Bailly missed seven matches due to injury. His longest spell out – a month-long absence due to a shoulder injury in early 2016 – lasted four weeks. He missed eight in his debut season with United, and then a whopping 25 the season after.
That wretched injury history has been interrupted by tantalizing glimpses of ability, which invariably serve to fan the flame of expectation for a return to fitness and form.
There is a feeling still that, when healthy and available, he represents the club’s best central defensive option, certainly in his mix of qualities. It is a flattering sentiment, but along with the team’s struggles at the back, it has probably seen him rushed back into action unwisely recently.
That feeling does not make it any harder for United to plan for the future. Already, with the consolidation of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager, there is a sense of a new meritocracy, and that complicates things for a player who seemingly cannot stay fit long enough to make an impression. His latest injury, incurred in victory over Tottenham Hotspur in preseason, will reportedly rule him out of action for up to eight weeks, and has now made the club’s pursuit of Leicester’s Harry Maguire more urgent and pointed.
There is a phenomenon wherein injuries appear to perpetuate themselves, and it can often become a vicious cycle: a player who cannot trust his body will seek to avoid contact, and that (sub)conscious desire often has the opposite effect, conditioning the player into unnatural positions or responses which then lead to injury recurrences.
Beyond even that, there is a psychological toll as well. Former Queens Park Rangers manager Chris Ramsey told the Guardian in 2017, “People don’t realise with long‑term injuries you go into depression – no matter how mild it is.
“You think about where you are in your contract, where you are in your career, if a new manager might come in who doesn’t know you – will he buy someone to replace you?
"That’s the worst thing about it.”
It is a sentiment with which Bailly can relate on a deep level. The manager who signed him has been replaced, and he has only played 70 competitive minutes under the new regime. He will be keenly aware that he is unlikely to be afforded the same degree of patience and confidence he might have enjoyed under Mourinho, and so would have been very eager to prove himself during United’s US tour.
That he has, once again, suffered a physical mishap might well be the last straw. Interest in Maguire long predated his latest injury, but that development only served to kick it into a higher gear.
The glass half-full view of this would be that it allows Bailly to recuperate – properly this time – without the pressure of needing to be the panacea to the club’s defensive problems.
The prospect of Maguire, for the sort of hefty fee that is mooted, would see that burden of expectation transfer to the Leicester man.
The Ivory Coast international is now into his final year. At 28, he will be still in his prime, and if he is able to channel his energies, mental and physical, into nursing back to health, there would be no shortage of suitors. A clean break, for both parties, could hold the key to Bailly’s rediscovery of self.