His name was nowhere to be seen on the score sheet, but Eric Bailly did more than anyone else to secure three points for Manchester United against Aston Villa last week. In what felt like a pivotal match for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, it was the Ivorian defender who proved the biggest difference between the two teams.
Bailly’s greatest contribution came in stoppage time when he threw himself at a close range shot from Keinan Davis to prevent the ball ending up in the back of David de Gea’s net. The 26-year-old was impressive throughout, though, keeping one of the Premier League’s most in-form attacks at arm’s length for the majority of the contest.
It was the sort of performance most acknowledge Bailly is capable of. The Ivorian’s natural talent has never been in doubt but injuries in the four years since his arrival from Villarreal have denied him the chance to build any sort of consistency. We are now seeing that consistency, with Bailly on a four-game run of league starts for the first time since 2017.
Manchester United find themselves at a defining point of their season. Eight wins in 10 Premier League games have seen the Old Trafford side rise up the table. They will be pace-setters with a point against Burnley on January 12th yet it’s not clear whether this is a sustained title challenge or just another short-lived surge, as has become customary under Solskjaer.
Concerns over a defence that has conceded 24 times in just 16 league fixtures this season persist. Even against Aston Villa, when United claimed an important victory, there was a moment of nativity at the back that cost them a goal, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka caught badly out of position for Bertrand Traore’s equaliser.
In Eric Bailly, though, Manchester United have a player who could solve many of their defensive problems and make them genuine title challengers. It’s certainly no coincidence that his return to fitness has happened at the same time of the Red Devils’ most impressive run of Solskjaer’s two-year tenure in charge.
Eric Bailly possesses a natural desire to keep the ball out of his net that no other Manchester United defender has. This desire is often to his own detriment, with Bailly’s chequered injury record partly down to his unorthodox style, but the way the Ivorian carries himself and puts himself on the line is somewhat reminiscent of Nemanja Matic.
It’s not just in his own individual performances that Bailly makes a difference either. The Ivorian puts others around him at ease. Most significantly, Harry Maguire is steadier with Bally alongside him in central defence. The £80 million man’s lack of pace is covered for by Bailly’s acceleration off the mark. This was evident in the way the 26-year-old swept up in behind against Aston Villa.
“You can see today his physicality, his pace and his bravery is second to none really,” Solskjaer said after the win over Aston Villa. “You can see how much it means to him but also for the rest of the boys at the end of the game, because he is such a well-liked player and man in the dressing room. Everyone wants him to do well and knows the struggles he’s had and we’re delighted for him.”
Keeping Eric Bailly fit until the end of the season will prove a challenge but if Solskjaer can find a way to do that, Manchester United will stand a better chance of finishing top of the Premier League pile. The Old Trafford side have put themselves in a good position and Bailly is one of the players who could get them over the line.