The great Manchester United teams of years gone by have been filled with characters. What’s more, they have been punctuated with warriors, men of fierce passion and commitment who will not only stick out their chest and lead from the front but will also demand exactly the same of their colleagues elsewhere on the field.
The likes of Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic have all been held up at various times as the symbolic centre of the cause – the brash, imposing, forceful combatant who would simply not accept the slightest drop in standards in the name of Manchester United.
One of the biggest criticisms of the current United side is that it is severely lacking just such a presence. That is not to say Jose Mourinho’s squad is short of characters; there are players who have been with the club long enough to know what it means to pull on the United shirt, such as Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick. There are Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and David de Gea - men who appeal to the modern fan’s thirst for lovable heroes. There are also huge personalities such as Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic whose cockiness and winning mentality is identified the world over.
But the one man who could yet prove to be cut from that truly uncompromising ilk is Eric Bailly.
Bailly returned to the starting XI in the Europa League win over Zorya on Thursday following a six-week lay-off with a knee injury, but played like a man who had barely been away. He put himself about, he led the defensive line, he calmed second-half nerves when holding onto a 1-0 lead by absolutely bossing any challenge in which he was asked to participate. He even bounced back up after taking a nasty-looking tumble which caused some damage to his neck, helping United over the line as they qualified for the knockout phase.
It was a performance typical of Bailly since his arrival from Villarreal in the summer, and deepened the belief of many that while his was the signing which created least fanfare in the close season it was his addition which could eventually be considered as the most valuable.
At times in recent seasons, Manchester United have been defensively weak. The ageing pairing of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand eventually lost their battle with Father Time, then Louis van Gaal seemed unable to get a settled, commanding unit working in harmony at the back whatever the formation and whoever the personnel. Even despite a huge tally of clean sheets under the Dutchman, United were too easily pulled apart when opponents really took their chances.
Submissions to Milton Keynes, Leicester City, Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United all happened under Van Gaal’s watch, and at times it was only a mixture of luck and the brilliance of David de Gea which avoided other teams feasting on the carcass of what used to be a behemoth of an opponent.
It has not only been at the back where United have struggled, with the paucity of midfield cover helping to puncture the defence time and again in recent years. And the lack of a true commander-in-chief in the engine room has helped to undermine them in that regard. It is no coincidence that Keane and Paul Scholes have often led the parade of analysts shaking their heads at United of late.
But in Bailly there is perhaps a new Red Devil looking to put fire back into United's bellies. His no-nonsense approach will inevitably get him in trouble at some point, and he is likely to be high up on the betting coupon for potential red card recipients when Tottenham arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. Yet it is in the way he plays with his heart very much on the outside that could inspire United going forward. And his ability to lead by example will surely only be strengthened once he is on speaking terms with more than just the handful of Spanish and French speakers in the first-team squad.
As the January window approaches, and Mourinho thinks about the fact he has ended up questioning some players’ attitudes and others’ ability to adapt since he took over in the summer, he is sure to look for more men of Bailly’s vintage as he attempts to shape a new Manchester United side worthy of the name.
A manager who made his name at Chelsea thanks to a number of strong, dominant characters has occasionally lacked them at United. But with Bailly in his team, he can always count on at least one man to pull his weight.