Opinion: Eric Bailly could become a Manchester United great

When Louis van Gaal helped Manchester United lift the FA Cup last May, he may well have been plotting an assault on the league title in what would have been his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

However, the writing had been on the wall for some time that he would not see out the final year of his contract, as United looked further away from title glory than ever.

He may well have been able to add quality and make a title push, but it is irrelevant. Jose Mourinho answered United's SOS and quickly set about putting his own stamp on the first team.

Shock first signing

He brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba for a world record fee. All three were typical Mourinho signings. Top quality and proven at the highest level. However, before any had put pen-to-paper, Mourinho had already secured his first signing.

Eric Bailly had arrived from Villarreal, and he was not the usual sort that Mourinho signs when it comes to experience, and he was relatively unknown. Having played only 40 top-flight games in total for Villarreal and his previous club, Espanyol, this was a somewhat 'left field' signing.

Mourinho knew what he was getting though, and Bailly has shown in his short time with United that he is a player. Strong, aggressive and quick - the Ivorian is a rock at the back that Mourinho is particularly fond of.

Bailly has had injuries, he went to the African Cup of Nations and has also shown signs of inexperience which has slowed his progress. Yet Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Daley Blind are all playing second fiddle to the Ivorian.

He has made an encouraging start and has the potential to become one of United's modern greats. He would be joining some illustrious names if he could, so how does he compare in key areas to some of the past legends?


Though not the tallest, Bailly is good in the air. He is physical, and when he attacks the ball there is not much that can stop him from winning it.

He is good, but it may be a bit early to compare him to Kevin Moran, Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic in this department. All conceded height at times, but their determination to win the ball made them formidable in the air.

Gordon McQueen was probably United's best in the air in recent times, as he had the height mixed with aggression. Gary Pallister was also great in this area being so tall, yet he would not always be the first to attack the ball in his partnership with Bruce.


Stam and Vidic stand out here. Most central defenders need strength, but these two were almost unbeatable in a physical battle.

Stam's huge frame literally scared attackers. Far from slow, a mixture of speed and strength meant that he was hardly ever beaten in a confrontation.

The same could be said for Vidic, who was incredibly strong. He wasn't so quick, so he had to ensure his positioning was spot on and was tight enough to be able to make his presence felt.

Bailly looks a real physical specimen. He does not really lose out in a duel, and he seems to relish the opportunity to impose himself even when he may not be favourite to win the ball. One of his best assets.


Bailly is quick and not just over a short distance. He is a proper athlete, and added to his strength it makes for a potent combination.

As mentioned, Stam was quick, but probably the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Ronny Johnsen, Mikael Silvestre, Paul McGrath and even Wes Brown were some of the quickest seen at Old Trafford.

Yet Pallister may have been the quickest of all over a distance. Allegedly he was the fastest at the club when they had the likes of Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe tearing down the wings.


Bruce, towards the end of his career was brilliant in terms of where he positioned himself. He was incredibly slow, so it was vital he was in the right areas and he got better with age.

Ferdinand was good, so too Johnsen and Henning Berg was also one of those players that always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

Maybe the best of the lot was seen at the back end of his career. Laurent Blanc may have been slower than Bruce, if that is possible, but he was so intelligent. He was a wonderful player and like a magnet to the football.

Bailly has some way to go yet in this area, but he is young and his stop start career may not have helped in this respect. If he gets a regular partner, then he should improve.

Technical ability

Bailly has shown wonderful composure in possession. He can pass long or short, he isn't afraid to drive forward with the ball and he has quite a bit of skill, including a 'Cruyff' turn in his locker.

Ferdinand was probably the best footballing centre back United have seen in the modern era. He could have easily played in midfield. Martin Buchan was also a good player, and a good leader. Pallister was also classy in possession, as was McGrath.

Almost all of the names mentioned could play football, and were comfortable in possession, but the cap must be doffed again to Blanc.

In a game against Charlton at The Valley, the penalty area was packed. The ball came to his feet in the six yard box. A player flew in to try and close him down. He dragged the ball back, until the player slid past him, and then just rolled it back nonchalantly. Outrageous and cool.

Bailly a legend?

In his fledgling career, he has enough about him to trouble some of the all time greats, because he has so many fantastic attributes. His strength and determination to win the ball, his speed and his ability promise a wonderful career.

Yet, he is not without flaws. Against Manchester City in the league, he froze under a high ball which led to their first goal. At Watford he got a bit of a chasing, though no United player came out of the game with credit.

In the two last-32 Europa League legs against St Etienne, Bailly had a nightmare opening half-hour at Old Trafford and then got a silly red card in the return leg. Two needless bookings in two minutes emphasised his over-enthusiastic nature.

McGrath, Stam, Ferdinand and Vidic are probably the best United have had, closely followed by Pallister and Bruce. Blanc would be up there had he came earlier in his career.

Those players all had few flaws, and what flaws they did have they were able to use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses.

Bailly can count over-exuberance and inexperience as two of his flaws, but if that is all then in time he will be some player. He may not have the same high profile as Mourinho's other signings, but he may just prove to be the best of the lot in time.