At the start of August, you would have received looks of pure aghast had your average football fan or United follower foreseen that Zlatan rocking into town or the newly christened most expensive player on the planet returning home would be upstaged. These two earth shattering events and walking egos have lit up Old Trafford and restored genuine belief that United are finally on the path to resuscitation after three years in relative wilderness.
The last of the glory days saw defensive giants Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand take their curtain calls. Those two, at the peak of their powers, were Herculean titans- virtually unbeatable and almost certainly irreplaceable. Calls for Raphael Varane among United fans fail to cease, even to the present day. United were in desperate need for a commander at the back to aid their quest to restore themselves at the very top. Whereas Phil Jones regressed, Chris Smalling progressed last season to become the defender we all knew he was capable of. Daley Blind continues to fill in admirably in the heart of the defence, those of the view he would become a Mourinho expendable are having to rethink.
United needed something more though. A real warrior in the Vidic mould, someone who would take no prisoners with a no nonsense mentality.
Enter a true rags to riches story. A guy who had never experienced an eleven-a-side game competitively just five years ago. Eric Bailly’s tale is simply extraordinary: Walking to trials growing up in the capital of his native Ivory Coast, Abidjan. Such humble backgrounds and times of hardship have made his acclimatisation to life in Manchester all the more impressive.
Bailly caught many people off guard when it was announced that he would become Jose Mourinho’s first costly import as Manchester United manager, capturing him from Villarreal for £30 million after a mere 46 appearances in their first team. Some leap of faith, that.
In an age of ever rocketing transfer fees and a real dearth of top quality centre-backs, Bailly has rapidly adapted to his new surroundings and looks every inch the potential to be a United great. “Woah, woah, woah” I hear you say, “he’s only played four games and you’re talking about greatness”. Maybe fractionally getting carried away but why not? His qualities fit that tag: Tough in the tackle, dominating in the air, calm in possession and a real turf scorcher with his pace. To merge Vidic and Ferdinand together would be the ideal defender, would it not? Bailly has the attributes to become that mega compound.
His seamless transition into a mainstay in defence after a mere month is a relative anomaly among newly acquired centre-backs in United’s modern history: Vidic and Patrice Evra were rabbits in the headlights after signing from Spartak Moscow and Monaco respectively. Ferdinand had his moments trying to justify the British record for a defender. Few could have foreseen Gerard Pique turn into the tour de force he is now when he was getting bullied by Kevin Davies at the Reebok.
No offence to Sir Gurnalot AKA Jones or Marcos Rojo, but they do not give off the aura or presence at the back compared to Bailly. One glance from the opposition towards Bailly, Fellaini, Pogba and Zlatan, United have big bodies, personalities, physical specimens to help bring back the long lost fear factor.
Bailly’s rise to fame will be epitomised by him appearing in his first Manchester derby off the back of scooping August’s player of the month award. Three man of the match awards out of four has represented the best start by a Manchester United centre-back in recent living memory. Bailly will not have Sergio Aguero to contend with at the weekend, but even had the Argentine been available few would have any serious reservations about his ability to handle him.
He is an undoubted rough diamond, he will be due for a shocking game at some point. Few could have anticipated his importance at such an early stage in his United career, despite the £30 million price tag. Surprise package could come as somewhat of an understatement but Bailly has turned heads and has already become a fans’ favourite on his own, equal right with Zlatan and Pogba.
The downside of Bailly’s incredible start is that if, I should say when, the upward curve continues, the sharks in Madrid will inevitably come calling given time. United’s ability to resist their advances and continually boost their recruitment drive will only be enhanced with Mourinho at the helm, as seen with United beating Real Madrid to the signature of Pogba.
A more immediate hindrance to United is that Bailly will be called upon by his country in the African cup of nations in the winter. Judging off his early season performances, Bailly will be a real miss to this United side. Switching back to the positives, at just 22, Bailly’s best is yet to come. To put in displays of such maturity in completely alien surroundings at an age like that will get United fans purring at the prospect of seeing what he can become.
From childhood struggles in his homeland to rubbing shoulders with the world’s best. Eric Bailly’s world has been transformed into something so very promising.