After telling his centre-backs all summer that they aren’t good enough, Jose Mourinho merely stood and watched with a face like thunder as Brighton’s veteran workhorse of a centre-forward gave Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof an afternoon they will want to forget in a hurry.
The win over Leicester saw Bailly and Lindelof start together competitively for the first time, and the signs were promising. The pair looked to complement each other well and the banter era of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo looked to have finally been laid to rest, with the grit-and-guile potential of Bailly and Lindelof finally coming to fruition as the next great legion of United centre-halves.
Lindelof endured a difficult start to life at Old Trafford, but a number of commanding performances at the end of last season appeared to suggest that he was finally starting to settle in and grow into the role of becoming a dependable Manchester United centre back. He impressed throughout Sweden’s unlikely run to the World Cup quarter-finals.
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Against Brighton, however, that all came crashing down as the pair put in one of the worst defensive performances I can remember. For all the criticism of the much-maligned Smalling and Jones, this was no better than anything we’ve seen from them, and these two are not only Jose Mourinho signings – expensive ones at that with a combined cost of £61m – but also, on paper at least, our best two defenders.
It would be churlish to pin all the blame on the pair as United were not good enough collectively from David de Gea to Romelu Lukaku, but Bailly conceded the corner that led to Shane Duffy’s goal and then gave away a penalty for Brighton’s third. Lindelof was outpaced and outmanouevred by Glenn Murray – a man who despite being ten years the Swede’s senior gave him a torrid time throughout.
Murray is 35 next month but you’d never know it, he played with the zest and exuberance of a player in his 20s and never stopped running. The Brighton striker epitomised Brighton’s performance whilst Lindelof summed up ours – sluggish, slow and completely inept. Bailly wasn’t his usual confident self, instead reduced to a nervous and quivering wreck as Brighton swarmed forward and never let him gets to grips with the pace of the game.
He was at fault for the opener, being caught flat-footed as Murray nipped in to score. Lindelof looked every bit of the centre-back who had such a horrible debut at Huddersfield last October. As for Bailly, this was probably his worst display in the red of United. It was simply a horror show – and a damning indictment of Mourinho’s recruitment.
I still think the Ivorian is United’s best centre-half and one shocking performance won’t change that view, but Bailly has two major flaws – he’s injury prone and far too rash. He carries a tendency to lunge in, as we saw when he scythed down Pascal Gross for the penalty that led to Brighton’s third goal. If he can iron out that major flaw and become more streetwise, he has all the attributes to become a fine defender for Manchester United – every bit as good as Nemanja Vidic was. Until then, the jury is very much out on both and, therefore by default, also the man who signed them.