Give Bailly & Lindelöf a ChanceAdded by Philip Meese on 27 Aug 2018 14:05
Despite their erratic performances against Brighton, Mourinho should retain Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
The defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion wasn’t pretty viewing for Manchester United fans. The entire team underperformed on a massive scale, and gave fans of their rivals cause for a good laugh. As a result, many fan called for centre-backs Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf to be dropped for the upcoming game against Tottenham Hotspur.
While this is not an unexpected reaction to such a limp showing, the reality is that none of United’s players who featured on the south coast should be surprised if they find themselves on the bench or in the stands against Spurs. While Bailly and Lindelöf are no exception to this, if José Mourinho is looking at the bigger picture, he might want to think twice before dropping either of the only two centre backs he has signed for United.
There’s no way to sugar coat it; last weekend’s game at the Amex was nothing short of a horror show. The Red Devils were 3-1 down by half-time, and never even looked like turning it around after the break. The goals Brighton scored were sloppy from a defensive point of view, no doubt about it. For the opener by Glenn Murray, Lindelöf should have been tighter with his marking, but give credit to the striker. Had Murray hit it with his left foot, which Lindelöf probably expected him to, it’s unlikely the ball would have ended up in the net. He would probably have gone for power on his weaker foot, and you would have backed David de Gea to keep it out or Murray to scuff the shot wide. It was actually a brilliant bit of thinking, which culminated in a great goal. An unexpected flick such as that is hard to stop; hence why it fooled both Lindelöf and de Gea.
The second goal was an absolute mess, but one that you can’t put entirely down to the centre backs. In addition to Bailly and Lindelöf, there were six other United players in the box, five of them within a couple of yards of Shane Duffy when he slammed the ball past de Gea. It would be unfair to put the blame on the two centre-backs when three quarters of the team were also in the box, and did nothing to stop it either.
The penalty that Bailly gave away was unnecessary, as Pascal Groß was going away from goal when the Ivorian slid in on him. It was a rash tackle, and the reality is that this is probably where United lost the game. They never looked like clawing back a two goal deficit. All in all, this is a day that nobody associated with the club will want to remember anytime soon.
Mourinho’s pursuit of a new centre-back throughout the summer was no surprise, any more than it was a secret. It has long been felt that the reason the Portuguese manager overburdens his outfield players with defensive duties is that he doesn’t have much trust in his defence. This doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t trust Bailly or Lindelöf – he scouted them both and decided they are good enough for United. It’s more likely he looks at the other options available to him and realises they have no long term future.
Phil Jones was once tipped by Sir Alex Ferguson as having the potential to be United’s best ever player. Five years down the line, however, it’s a different picture entirely. Over the last four seasons, Jones has never managed to make thirty appearances in a single campaign. He is never out of the treatment room, so how are you supposed to develop as a player when you are never fit enough to string ten games together? Maybe if he wasn’t so injury prone, he might have had a chance at making Ferguson’s prediction come true. The reality is that he cannot be relied upon to stay fit.
Chris Smalling was not even considered for Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the 2018 World Cup. He has now been at Old Trafford for eight years, but he has looked largely out of his depth since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić departed. Smalling isn’t a natural leader, and one of the things that really lets him down is his concentration. Given that he will be 29 before the end of this year, it is hard to imagine him making huge improvements to his game at this stage of his career. You also have to ask the question; if he isn’t good enough to get into the England squad, surely he isn’t good enough for United?
The other option is Marcos Rojo, who has missed the start of the season after picking up a knock. During Mourinho’s first season, the Argentine defender looked solid at centre-back before a knee injury prematurely ended his season. One major issue for him, however, is that his penchant for a two footed tackle makes him a red card waiting to happen. It was rumoured that he was poised for a move to Everton during the summer, which never came off in the end. This tells you he is not crucial to Mourinho’s plans. It was mooted that the reason he would be likely to be sold, however, is because United had to offload one centre-back before bringing in another, and there was no interest in Smalling or Jones.
Change of Formation
Against Tottenham at home last season, which also came after United’s first defeat of the season, Mourinho switched to a back three, enabling him to push his wing-backs forward. United won the game 1-0 and looked a lot more solid and balanced. The fact that neither Lindelöf or Bailly look ready to lead the team just yet means that a back three, with someone a bit more experienced alongside them might be the best way to go.
In addition to the three other centre-backs, there is also the option to play the returning Nemanja Matić. The Serbian is one of the the most commanding figures in the team, and a natural leader. He is also one of the best tacklers in the team, and great in the air; the natural hallmarks of a quality centre-back. Having never been the paciest of players, and now aged 30, it is very possible that he will eventually switch to defence. This would allow the midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira and Fred to continue. With a more solid base behind them, they might show more of the promise they displayed in the opening game against Leicester City.
Whatever faults Mourinho has as a manager, throughout his career he has usually been pretty astute when it comes to identifying central defenders. Ricardo Carvalho followed him from Porto to Chelsea and formed one of the Premier League’s most sold defences alongside John Terry. He also joined him at Real Madrid, eventually being ousted by Raphaël Varane – another Mourinho recruit. Varane is now one of the most coveted defenders in the world. These are just two examples.
Despite his injury troubles last season, and a shocker of a game last weekend, many United fans see Eric Bailly as their best centre-back. A hard tackler, a total athlete and a great header of the ball are attributes that haven’t disappeared on the back of one bad game. On the other hand, Victor Lindelöf has yet to show the qualities that prompted Mourinho to sign him while wearing the red of United. Part of the reason for this may be that he has never had a consistent run in the team. He looked great for Sweden in the World Cup, where he is completely familiar with his role in the team. One thing is for certain, if he isn’t given a run of games at Old Trafford, how is he supposed to adapt to playing for United? Out of all of the centre-backs at Mourinho’s disposal, Lindelöf looks like the best ball playing defender, something which United have lacked for a while.
No doubt Bailly and Lindelöf had a bad day at the office last weekend – that has happened to practically every defensive pairing that has ever played for United. The reality is that it was only the second time they have started together, with the Leicester game being the first. It would be unreasonable to expect them to have a Ferdinand and Vidić style understanding at the back just yet. But who knows what will happen if they are given a run of games together? One thing is for certain, dropping either of them isn’t the answer. Give them a run of games to get used to each other and they might surprise a few people.
Over the last four or five years, United have tried a range of combinations at centre-half, most of them involving Smalling, Jones and Rojo, and got nowhere near the title. It’s not as though any of those three have done anything to suggest that they should be one of the first names on the team sheet. The fact that Mourinho was after a new centre-back all summer most likely indicates that it is these three that should be fearing for their United futures.
At this moment, United don’t look as though they will put up a challenge for the Premier League title. This is exactly why Mourinho should stick with of Bailly and Lindelöf. The other options at his disposal have been tried and tested – they have had their shot and shown that they are not up to the challenge. But one bad performance at Brighton should not spell the end for the two centre-backs. Instead, it should be used as a learning curve.
It is impossible to say whether Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf are the future of United’s backline. But if United had dumped Jaap Stam, Gary Pallister and Nemanja Vidić on the back of their early performances, they wouldn’t be the Old Trafford legends that they are now.