Just over a year ago, Eric Bailly received a prank phone call from a Portuguese man pretending to be Jose Mourinho, or so he thought.
“I was in the Ivory Coast, I got called from a Portuguese number, he introduced himself but I just didn’t believe it at first.”
These comments refer to the personal phone call that Mourinho made to Bailly, in order of convincing him to join the red side of Manchester, following speculation of United’s noisy neighbours being interested in Villarreal’s newly emerging defensive talent. So, from at first thinking that Manchester United’s interest in him was a initial joke, to then establishing himself as the club’s number one centre-half in just over a year – the journey of Eric Bailly in a United jersey has been nothing short of one filled with sheer promise and escalating anticipation. It seems like so long ago that Jose Mourinho welcomed his first signing at Old Trafford, standing next to the promising but yet rather unrecognised signing in Eric Bailly.
It would be a fair assessment in saying that the central defensive spot at United has not yet been solidified as a players own, ever since the days of both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The Serbian and Englishman’s departures left a gaping hole in the side, leaving the club’s defence deflated of experience, leadership and simply, of world class ability.
However, it can be said with some confidence that Eric Bailly is genuinely the closest player that United have come across, who looks capable in establishing himself as the club’s leading centre-back for easily the next 5-6 years. At just the age of 23, Bailly has solidified his position at the back as his own, with the other defenders at the club now battling it out to become his partner, rather than his competitor.
The combination of his strong physique, despite his rather unorthodox slim-line looking presence, makes the Ivorian a rather complete athlete and well suited to the physicality of the Premier League. The six-foot-one defender is more than accomplished in dealing with the variety of strikers that you find in the English game, utilising his aggression and aerial leap against those who prefer to hold the ball up, whilst also possessing a rapid burst of acceleration in his locker, thus counteracting the effectiveness of strikers such as Jamie Vardy or even Sergio Aguero. Bailly truly belongs to the rare breed of defenders that simply seems to have it all.
However, it is not just the typical physicality of the Ivorian that makes him such a special talent, but also through his footballing intelligence and defensive reading of the game, something that Bailly predominantly relies on during games. For our readers that are familiar with Football Manager terminology, we would typically come to categorise him as a ‘Stopper.’ For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it simply does what it says on the tin. The role of the ‘stopper’ refers to the central defender who is willing to step forward out of his defensive line and ‘stop’ the opposition, predominantly through his anticipating and breaking up of the opposing attack.
Although this sounds a rather simple instruction, it’s one that can easily go rather wrong. The stepping out of the defensive line is a rather delicate procedure, as should the ‘stopper’ wrongly anticipate his move, the opposition attackers are in for a clean breakaway. The role is however, something that Bailly makes look easy, as time and time again he steps forward and breaks up the opposition’s play, stealing the ball and rarely ever making a defensive error.
As mentioned, despite being at the age of just 23, United fans have every right to be talking up the proposition of Bailly one day establishing himself amongst the defensive elite. In the modern game where the defensive actions of defenders are now almost downplayed, the Ivorian certainly provides as a breath of fresh air, in terms of reassuring fans full of confidence that their team will not concede, when Bailly is playing.