Eric Bailly is Man United's best defender and one of the biggest keys to United's season
Can Eric Bailly take the lead in central defence? Like him, the other players in his position at Manchester United all have their own significant challenges, but he seems to be by far the most talented of the pack.
Like Bailly, Phil Jones struggles with injury. Chris Smalling is fairly solid, with the occasional glaring error, but his greatest shortcomings are arguably in attack rather than defence -- more on that later. Marcos Rojo has enjoyed periods of good form, and plays the ball out well from the back, but there is a long-term question over his reliability. Victor Lindelof had a fine World Cup for Sweden but that was in a team which was conservative in its approach, and a more expansive attitude to passing is needed in the Premier League.
That leaves Bailly, a player whose tenure at Old Trafford has been frustrating and impressive in roughly equal measure. When the Ivory Coast international arrived from Villarreal two summers ago, it was remarked by some observers -- not entirely in jest -- that United had bought the wrong defender from the Spanish side. Mateo Musacchio was regarded as the better option, being a more composed and developed player, though Bailly's potential was clear for all to see.
Bailly, however, surpassed all expectation. It is arguable that of the four players Jose Mourinho acquired that year, he had the most consistent season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though he scored plenty of goals, squandered presentable opportunities at key moments. Paul Pogba, despite passages of unparalleled brilliance, often looked overwhelmed by his status as the world's most expensive player. Henrikh Mkhitaryan's self-confidence, already a fragile edifice in his early months at the club, dissolved entirely after a poor showing against Manchester City.
Yet Bailly, to quote the famous TV series The Wire, stood tall. Not only is he technically gifted, able to waltz past most opposing forwards with the ease of a creative midfielder, he is extremely relaxed under pressure. He can play a disciplined game as a man-marker, or take a more progressive attitude. Crucially, he has what Smalling lacks -- the confidence to play the ball through the middle of the field, into the feet of his midfielders. This is a vital passing lane, and one which United sorely underuse at present.
Witness two of the best counter-attacks at the World Cup -- Belgium's winner against Japan, scored by Nacer Chadli, and Kylian Mbappe's second goal against Argentina for France. In both cases, the goal was initiated by a pass through the middle of the field by the defensive players.
Bailly can play that pass without fear or significant difficulty, which is what makes him such an important asset. But, but -- and here comes the inevitable caveat -- Bailly has two identifiable problems. The first is the intermittent lapse into indiscipline, which is evidence of an impetuous streak -- yet Nemanja Vidic had one of those, and it didn't do him too much harm in the long term.
The second is with his fitness. Bailly has played only 38 league games in the last two years, which amounts to precisely half of the available fixtures; and his absence is compounded by the scheduling of the African Cup of Nations during March every other year. Though he is a superb player, there are still questions over his leadership, raised most recently and vocally by Mourinho -- who, in typical Mourinho fashion, said that he didn't think he was a leader and then handed him the captain's armband for a friendly against Real Madrid a few days later.
Though it's a fool's errand to try to figure out Mourinho's thought process, it might just be that Bailly's manager was testing him. After all, Mourinho has thus far been unable to reinforce his central defence, and so must look within his squad for rapid improvement. He does not have the luxury of calling on, say, Atletico Madrid's Jose Gimenez, who would have been an ideal signing. Instead, he must make do with what he has, and Bailly is the best of it. For a manager as meticulous on the defensive end as Mourinho, that looks like a remarkable gamble, and United supporters can only hope that Bailly's inclusion leads to a faster, more positive attacking game.
Bailly is that good, and that important to their chances of a successful start to the Premier League season. It has been a preseason fraught with problems in midfield and attack, most notably with the rumblings of discontent over the futures of Anthony Martial and to a much lesser extent Paul Pogba -- yet, when all is said and done, the form of Bailly could prove to be one of the most decisive factors in what United do or do not do this season.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.