It’s not often a £30 million signing goes under the radar. For most clubs in the world such a fee would break their transfer record but when Manchester United paid that sum of money to bring Eric Bailly to Old Trafford very little was mentioned about it. One could argue it’s because for a club like United it’s a mere drop in the ocean. Which may be true, but under normal circumstances paying £30 million for a player with fewer than 40 first-team appearances under his belt would be front-page news for weeks with every single pundit chipping in about how modern football is detached from the normal world.
Bailly was lost in the aftermath of the sensationalised signings of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Pogba and Ibrahimovic, the PR juggernauts, overshadowed the Ivorian.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the United no.3 has settled into life in the Premier League with great haste. Unlike John Stones, Bailly isn’t constantly under the microscope and every misplaced pass isn’t jumped on.
Bailly’s rise to stardom has been meteoric. In 2011, at the age of 17 he joined the Espanyol youth academy and was there until the joined the clubs reserve team in 2013. He spent a season playing in the Segunda Division B and made 21 appearances. On 5 October 2014, Bailly made his first-team – and La Liga – debut, coming on as a late substitute in a 2–0 home win against Real Sociedad. He went on to make a further 4 appearances for the first-team before Villarreal came calling.
Villarreal acted swiftly to bring Bailly in and paid €5.7 million for his services after losing starting centre-back Gabriel Paulista to Arsenal. Bailly worked his way into the team and as the 2015/16 season got underway he’d firmly established himself as a first-choice centre-back for Villarreal, at times keeping highly sought after Mateo Mussachio on the bench. He helped guide Villarreal to a 4th place finish in La Liga. Some of Europe’s elite clubs starting to share some admiring glances towards the young defender and it wasn’t long before he was being linked with a move away from the El Madrigal with Manchester City and Bayern Munich reportedly interested.
The only surprise was just how quickly United managed to get the deal done. According to reports Bailly wasn’t a target until Jose Mourinho was appointed. Within the space of two weeks of the special one’s appointment Bailly was a United player, and the Portuguese manager was instrumental in bringing the centre-back to the club.
Bailly’s best friend Joan Jordan explained how events unfolded.
“It was out of the blue. It meant a huge amount. Eric called me up all excited.‘He was saying, “How can I say no when Mourinho calls me?” Mourinho spoke in French, Eric’s mother tongue, and explained exactly what his role would be and what his plan was for United. Mourinho’s phone call was a big intervention.”
Bailly was a perfect fit for Manchester United. He’s a physical specimen cooked up in a lab. A powerhouse with a purpose. He’s a proactive, front foot defender who has pace, presence and knows when to play and when to get rid of the ball. He’s capable of playing in either full-back position and it means he’s comfortable filling in at right-back when Antonio Valencia, the United right-back, supports the attack and vacates the right-back area. He’s been dubbed the heir to Rio Ferdinand’s United throne and it’s easy to see why with plenty of similarities.
Bailly’s ability on the ball:
In the picture above you see Eric Bailly in possession of the ball. Stoke are pretty deep and the onus is on United to break them down. In this exact scenario many centre-backs would opt to play a pass to Valencia, highlighted by the red arrow, with the Stoke forward in close proximity. However, Bailly drives into the space centrally, highlighted by the white arrow.
Once again the red arrow highlights a pass Bailly could make. It’s simple and it’s safe but Bailly backs his own ability and continues his run forward into the acres of space with no Stoke player shutting him down.
In the above picture Stoke’s defensive shape is clear to see. It’s a narrow back four shielded by a narrow midfield five. There’s not much space between the two lines for United to play in and the passing lanes to the United players centrally are blocked off. But Bailly plays a perfectly weighted pass which takes the Stoke midfield out of the game completely highlighted by the red arrow.
The Bailly pass just obliterates Stoke’s defensive shape. What was a fairly comfortable situation with 9 Stoke players behind the ball quickly turns into a 4 vs 4 attack for United with the man in possession now in plenty of space to drive into the penalty area.
He’s carried over his confident play when in possession and backing his ability from his time in Spain.
In this picture Marcelo has chased Eric Bailly into a corner. He’s in quite the predicament in this situation because a) he’s on his weaker foot if he turns away b) if he tries something and Marcelo wins the ball back Madrid have four players in the Villarreal penalty area.
As calmly as you like though Bailly turns back on himself and drives into space. He carries the ball forward because playing it inside to one of the Villarreal central midfielders and in this one moment of play it takes four Madrid players out of the game and nullifies their press.
Examples of Bailly’s anticipation.
Manchester United are chasing the winner against Hull City as the home side manage to regain possession and look to find striker Abel Hernandez in the hope he holds the ball up and allows them to get out. In the picture Bailly is circled in red and as soon as the ball is played towards Hernandez Bailly is on the move. His proactive approach is there for all to see.
Before Hernandez is even able to get the ball under control Bailly has stuck one of his long legs around the side of the Uruguayan and won the ball back for United who are now able to carry on their assault on the Hull City defence. When United are at their best they hem teams in and this part of Bailly’s game will be vital.
Examples of Bailly’s awareness:
The series of pictures above are taken from the Charity Shield match between Manchester United and Leicester City. It was Bailly’s first competitive start for the Red Devils and he was tasked with keeping a rampant Jamie Vardy quiet. Leicester looked to play a quick ball over the top and isolate Vardy and the centre-back. It’s a tactic they used to great success as they won the title and Vardy blitzed many defenders using this tactic. However, Bailly, who is isolated, doesn’t dive in and he shows Vardy onto his weaker side. He pushes him wide and then eventually slides in and puts the ball out for a corner. Once again it’s something so simple but it’s so effective.
So far this season Bailly has a 90% pass success rate in all competitions and he attempts 50 passes per match which is similar to centre-back partner Chris Smalling who has a 91% pass success rate from the 54 passes he attempts. Bailly averages 2.2 tackles and 3.3 interceptions which shows he’s the aggressor in the partnership with Smalling averaging 0.7 for both of those stats.
United will be without the dominant centre-back for the foreseeable future after he was ruled out with a knee injury. Fans must be hopeful that he comes back into the team and rediscovers his form prior to the injury. He could be the shrewdest of their summer splurging.