When Manchester United completed the signing of centre-back, Eric Bailly, in the summer of 2016, it had seemed like the club’s diabolical presence of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the backline had come to an end. Having left Villarreal and La Liga at such a young age, the Ivory Coast international moved to England as an unknown player who cost the biggest club in England a fee of £30million.
The player himself moved to a new country and a new league with very little expectations, given that he wasn’t seen as one of the best rising and upcoming centre-backs within Europe. However, the instant mentions about his athleticism, composure on the ball and his mentality of intercepting and tackling every ball, made it feel like a defender was coming in to fix the side’s ongoing issues.
Looking back at Bailly’s first season in the Premier League, it can be easily stated that he exceeded all opinions and predictions of how he would do, as he formed a really consistent and dominant partnership with the likes of Jones and Marcos Rojo throughout the campaign. In that very moment, the centre-back seemed like the perfect individual for the manager to form his defence around.
Although the main focus was on Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who arrived in the same window as Bailly did, it was the latter that instantly became a fans favourite and was seen as one of the signings of the season. Not only that, he came out on top when facing the likes of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Sergio Aguero in his first campaign within English football.
Though, the unfortunate issues began in the following season with an unknown injury in October 2017, which kept him out on the sidelines until the first week of December as he missed five games altogether. At first, it was regarded as a minor setback that would keep him away from the side for four to six weeks, but he returned to training and a week later, he suffered a major ankle problem that would see him face his longest spell so far in his professional career as an injured player.
Within the period from October 2017 till February 2018, Bailly missed 26 important games and it could very well be the reason to why he has fallen down the pecking order over the last couple of months. Also, the defence has been mentioned as a department that is filled with flaws and weaknesses, so it’s not actually a surprise to see the backline being changed week in and out.
Also, the 26 games he missed should be seen as three quarters of a season that the 24-year-old spent on the sidelines, which has simply stagnated his development and has prevented himself from proving that he is one of the best centre-backs within England and Europe. If the long-term injury had not occurred, he would have potentially had another 15 to 20 league games of experience under his belt and he would now be playing alongside Victor Lindelof at the heart of defence on a regular basis.
On the other hand, Eric Bailly still has a lot to learn given that he has a tendency to lose focus in the matter of seconds and can frustratingly be seen as a red card waiting to happen. If the former manager, Jose Mourinho, who has a history when it comes to improving young and upcoming defenders, cannot help take the centre-back to the next level, the question has to be seriously asked on what needs to be done, in order to make the individual become consistent and defensively dominant again.
Overall, the majority of Manchester United supporters and the Old Trafford faithful know how brutal and talented Eric Bailly is, someone who is not afraid of putting his head where most would not even confidently put their feet into the challenge. And in the end, all he may need is more game time alongside Lindelof under a manager that has an actual footballing system, or a defensive coach that can kind-heartedly assist him on and off the pitch to become a more complete and perfect centre-back.