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Manchester United’s defensive frailties were visibly exposed against Newcastle United on Sunday. The Magpies’ goal came from a free kick given away by Chris Smalling within his own half for diving.
The resultant free kick was then defended poorly as Matt Ritchie ghosted into the penalty area unchallenged to fire the ball past David de Gea into the bottom corner.
Eric Bailly’s absence has rocked Manchester United since before the turn of the year, it’s become apparent that playing Chris Smalling and Phil Jones next to each other is a recipe for disaster, the pair bring out the worst qualities in one another and were highly culpable for the defensive horror show which saw United dominated by Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
Jose Mourinho has always been cautious when asked about Bailly’s return in recent weeks, the first leg of the Champions League tie with Sevilla was earmarked and with the Ivorian having returned to training on Wednesday, this now seems likely.
Bailly is United’s best defender, he isn’t quite in the world class bracket yet but there are perhaps only two central defenders in the Premier League whom you would choose to have over him, Watford’s Troy Deeney has already publicly noted just how difficult it is to go up against the former Villarreal star.
“There is nobody in the current Arsenal team that senses fear, you feel like you can run through them,” he explained in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live.
“When you play against a tough centre-half like Bailly you think ‘he’s going to give me a whack’.”
Marcos Rojo has played well under Jose Mourinho and Victor Lindelof actually turned his form around after a difficult start to life at Old Trafford, however in recent weeks the pair have sat and watched from the sideline as the Smalling/Jones road-show has gone from ground to ground delighting the home support.
Even with the potential Lindelof has, you couldn’t argue that Mourinho has a world class defender other than maybe Bailly. With all the talk of yet another vastly expensive move for a forward player, be that Gareth Bale, Paulo Dybala or Mauro Icardi, it’s quite obvious that such money would be better spent on another central defender.
Manchester United need a high class central pairing at the back, Eric Bailly and another. With Toby Alderweireld’s future at Tottenham Hotspur uncertain, United should make a concerted effort to try and sign him in the summer.
Bailly doesn’t necessarily bring calm to United’s defence, some of his challenges are quite wild in truth, but he is an incredible defender and he makes the players around him better. Phil Jones’ United career had stalled completely before Mourinho and Bailly arrived, in fact he was mostly talked about as a figure of fun with regards to Louis van Gaal putting him on corner taking duty.
Yet since the summer of 2016, his best performances for the club have come next to Bailly, the pair work well together and the Ivorian certainly makes Jones play to a higher standard.
Winning the Premier League this season is impossible for United now and whilst there has been some talk of a battle for a top four finish this season, the Reds should have more than enough to finish second.
The Champions League is where Mourinho and the team’s focus will be, a round of 16 tie with Sevilla should be a routine victory, especially when you consider how poor the Andalusian side have been since Vincenzo Montella was appointed manager during the winter break.
Bailly returning will give the team a greater defensive solidity and will take the pressure off those around him; it should also prevent the conceding of sloppy goals like the one at St James’ Park, these kind of mistakes can kill you in the knockout phase of the Champions League.
Mourinho is aware of the team’s defensive deficiencies; it’s bizarre that Lindelof hasn’t been given more of a chance of late.
Suggestions that the Reds lack a leader in defence aren’t wide of the mark, but it’s not as important as it used to be. The important thing is to have quality players in defensive positions who know how to do their jobs properly.
Eric Bailly is one such defender and with United’s Champions League campaign about to restart, his return is incredibly important to the club’s potential success.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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