It feels like an age since Manchester United have had a central defensive partnership on the level of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
For the longest time, we’ve had to make do with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, and whilst the former was a non-starter, the latter had proved fairly reliable, offering height, physicality and even notching some crucial goals.
However, with his loan spell at Roma going so well and the United rebuild continuing, it’s likely the move will be made permanent.
Foundations at the back
Following the arrival of Harry Maguire, we are on the verge of, once again, establishing a centre-back pairing that can compete at the highest level.
With nearly a full season under his belt and having already claimed the captain’s armband, the Englishman has increased our aerial presence, sped up the transition from back to front by stepping out into midfield, and brought a real sense of leadership that the team has been lacking for some time. However, there is still a debate around who should start alongside him.
For the most part, Victor Lindelöf has been the go-to-choice alongside Maguire. On the one hand, whilst he has racked up the most minutes in that position over the last two seasons, there is an argument to be made that he defaulted into this role because of surrounding injuries – the most notable of which being Eric Bailly.
Brought in alongside the Swede, the two were supposed to have been Jose Mourinho’s first-choice centre backs, but after several serious injuries and limited game time in between, the Ivorian has struggled to cement his spot in the starting eleven.
There is talk of bringing in another centre-back in the summer, though it is being reported that they would serve mainly as back-up. So, if both Lindelöf and Bailly are battling for that second spot next season, who is it going to be? Here, I’ll evaluate who I think it should be.
Lindelöf had a strong 18/19 campaign, especially in United’s amazing Champion’s League run, where he put in several highly mature defensive displays, showing why his compatriots call him ‘Iceman’. He had a calming influence on the otherwise regularly disrupted backline, however, whilst he has by no means had a bad season, that cool and collected disposition seems to have faded more recently.
Often times this year, the Swede has looked scared to receive the ball and reticent to play as many forward passes. One of his rarely noted trademarks is opening up the right-hand side of his body and playing a long through ball into the right-sided forward. This move is great when it’s pulled off, but unfortunately, he has had a poor success rate with it as of late, opting instead to play more frequent but shorter range passes back to Maguire or an approximate defender.
Moreover, his overall passing accuracy in the league has declined year on year; the same goes for his successful tackles, which have dropped from 68% to 43% this season alone. In fairness, these kinds of statistics are likely to fluctuate from season to season and his positioning is still, arguably, his best trait, so we could see a return to form next season. However, one thing that has remained the same throughout his time at United is his biggest weakness, and that is his aerial ability.
Not only does he struggle to win the ball in the air against most opposition, but he is the least physical option overall. On several occasions, this has meant that even when he has the opportunity to recover in immediate follow-up, he is often muscled off the ball, leaving the attacker to break clean through on goal. Maguire manages to head almost everything away, but there’s only so much cover he can offer if Lindelöf can’t handle his man.
He might not have been nicknamed ‘The Spider’ like Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but Bailly is, in my opinion, our most athletic centre-back. Not only is he strong in the challenge, overall, he is just as proficient in the air as Maguire, superb in the recovery and even throws in the occasional Nainggolan reverse tackle.
Obviously, the main concern with Bailly is his injury record. Not only has he undergone major surgery on a problem knee, but he has suffered a myriad of other setbacks. This is the drawback to his often overzealous agility, as a number of his injuries have been almost self-inflicted, like leaping to control the ball in the air and simply landing awkwardly. He is what I’d refer to as a ‘full-blooded’ defender, meaning that although he’s willing to put his body on the line, he’s likely to come away with either a card or a contusion more often than not.
Although this impulsivity can add an element of jeopardy to the defence, his all-round unpredictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You often need a braver centre-back who is more willing to take risks when the other might second-guess the instinct: this is exactly what Vidic brought to his United side, while Rio would offer a more controlled presence and providing cover where necessary.
Furthermore, his often unorthodox approach, combined with relatively fewer appearances than our other first-team centre-backs, makes Bailly somewhat of an unknown quantity. He may fly into a highly difficult challenge, but his craziness might also lead to incredible, albeit terrifying moments, such as pulling off stepovers or Cruyff turns in his own box, as seen against Chelsea and LASK. Whatever the outcome, he’ll always put his all into every match and you’ll always be entertained.
All in all, the best defensive partnerships strike a balance between robustness, both in the air and on the deck; positional awareness, decision-making and ability on the ball.
Having weighed up the pros and cons of the two main choices, as well as which traits dovetail best with Maguire’s, I have landed on Eric Bailly as his most suitable partner.
Not only is he the more imposing physical presence of the two and stronger in the tackle, but with a duo of Bailly and Maguire, you don’t have to sacrifice any aerial superiority. Whilst his positioning may not be as attuned as Lindelöf’s, he can still track his man and give Maguire more freedom to play out from the back and progress the ball into the midfield.
What’s more, playing alongside an already more reliable defender who can read the game in Maguire, would mean not only extra cover, but it might also help calm down his overall game, saving those more rash moments as an absolute last resort.
Lastly, if we are looking to build a truly competitive side that can perform in every competition, we need quality in-depth and Lindelöf would be a more than suitable squad player to rotate in, not to mention replace Bailly should he suffer another injury.
Agree with the verdict? Think we should sign another centre-back? Let us know in the comments.