17th October 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Many questions were raised whether Eric Bailly was ready for the impending challenge that awaited him when he joined Manchester United from Villarreal in the summer.
While he'd proven during his time in Spain with Espanyol and the Yellow Submarines that he had all the qualities to be a top class central defender, there was still an undeniable rawness to his game. The common belief was that he might be making the step up in class too soon and that he would've been better served staying in Spain a little longer to further develop his craft.
But, with less than 50 La Liga games under his belt, Bailly felt ready to take on the challenge and grasp his incredible opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. "It was my dream since being a child to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world and now I'm here. I'm going to take that chance," he insisted.
"From when I heard United were interested in me, I've been very happy. Manchester as a city is tranquil, very different to Barcelona, but it's a good place to be a footballer."
To his credit, however, the Ivorian has emphatically silenced his critics by putting in some fantastic displays at the heart of the Red Devils' defence. Indeed, he's been one of Jose Mourinho's finest performers in their slightly indifferent start to the season, and the fact he's played every minute of every Premier League game so far has illustrated how highly his Portuguese manager regards him.
Although he's still learning English, it's a testament to his character that he's been able to settle in so quickly at Man United, just as he's done in the past with his two former clubs. He certainly hasn't let the staggering £30 million fee United shelled out to acquire him affect him either, he's just got on with it and let his actions on the pitch do all the talking. And he's reaping the rewards of all his hard work and exhibiting a terrific capacity to take on his manager's teachings in the process.
"Spanish football is more tactical and technical; English is more direct and physical," Bailly noted. "I'm working hard to adapt because it's not easy, but I'm satisfied with my progress."
He has every reason to be content with his flying start too, as the physical imposing 22-year-old has barely put a foot wrong in the opening two months of the 2016/2017 campaign. Playing alongside Daley Blind or Chris Smalling, the 187cm hardman has looked right at home, coping wonderfully with the rigours of the Premier League on his way to forming some encouraging relationships with his more seasoned teammates. This is something Blind recently touched on saying: "We've had a good understanding already. It's important to be able to rely on each other and help each other, as that helps build a team together."
While his strength, power, aerial prowess and blistering pace have been obvious standouts, Bailly's importantly showed plenty of quality in the finer details of defending too. His positioning and spacing with his defensive partners has, for the most part, been good, while his decision making has seen him rarely get caught out. Whether by making the right call when to hold his position, cover in behind for his defensive colleagues or back his judgement to apply an intervention, his judgement and reading of the play has been a very promising component of his work so far.
Bailly's crucially transferred his quality stopping output into United's possession game, as the technically sound colossus has put his impressive passing game to great use. In particular, he looked excellent in Man Utd's most recent game, a 1-1 draw with Stoke City, where he clearly enjoyed looking up and seeing the likes of Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic using their intuitive movement to provide him with many options.
By the numbers, his 2.6 tackles per game, 3.6 interceptions pg, 6.3 clearances and 88.9% pass completion rate undoubtedly accentuate his vast contribution.
One of his countryman, in former Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool defender, Kolo Toure, has been extremely impressed by Bailly's exemplary form. "He can be a big, big player for United. He can be the future for United," he told the United Review.
"What he's doing right now is amazing and I think his future is really, really bright. He will improve and if he learns from Mourinho then he can become one of the best defenders in the world. He's tall, technically very good, has brilliant vision and he's really calm. That calmness is the most powerful attribute he's got."
Playing with such diligence, concentration and maturity has definitely meant he's been one of the signings of the season to date. Indeed, the way he's growing with every passing game must be of huge satisfaction to Mourinho and the United faithful, who are already drawing comparisons between him and the towering Nemanja Vidic.
Up next, however, he and his teammates face a massive challenge in the shape of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. Bailly will have to be right on top of his game to cope with the highly dynamic, interchangeable Reds frontline, but the confident stopper will back himself to get the job done after his exertions with the Ivory Coast over the international break.
Although his English still needs improvement, all things considered, Bailly's start to life in England has been nothing short of exceptional.
Eric Bailly: Signing of 2016 for Manchester United
17th October 2016. By Edward Stratmann.