After a great start to the season, Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have found themselves to be on the receiving end of media criticism once again. A narrow 1-0 win against Spurs was not enough to silence the critics as insipid attacking displays in the 0-0 draw against Liverpool and 1-0 loss to Chelsea have seen Manchester City increase the gap at the top of the table. The lack of attacking impetus has given rise to old questions of the ‘Manchester United way’ especially contrasted with cross-town rivals City’s goal scoring exploits. Mourinho’s abysmal record against fellow big sides has been bandied around and the debate about the divisive manager will perhaps forever rage on. However, one aspect of his team that even his harshest critics would struggle to complain about is the defensive organization. There are few better managers than Mourinho when it comes to pragmatism and ensuring a clean sheet. Manchester United have shipped a measly 5 goals in 11 games thus far in the campaign, unsurprisingly the best in the league. At the heart of this defence is young Ivorian, Eric Bailly.
The young central defender didn’t take long to win the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful as he wasted little time in getting stuck into opposition strikers. A throwback to the old school of defenders, Bailly seems to relish the physical battle. Plenty have bemoaned the fact that in the modern game, tackling is an increasingly dying art but young Eric apparently didn’t get the memo. However, the notion that Bailly relies solely on his physicality does a massive disservice to his improvement as a defender. Yes, his physicality is a massive strength and helps bail him out of situations where his defensive acumen is still rough around the edges. But the Ivorian International has already shown overall improvement in his understanding of the game in his time under Jose’s tutelage.
As the above video by uMAXit football points out, Bailly has featured regularly in both 3 and 4 man defences this season adapting to the slightly different roles he has been tasked with. Defenders blessed with pace and physical prowess often tend to rely on those attributes as they make their way up the ranks with Bailly no exception. These attributes can often cover up positional mistakes with recovery runs but at the highest level they are more likely to be punished. As Bailly has grown into his role at the club, so has his spatial awareness and positioning. As covered in the above video, the young centre-half often dovetails with Matic to limit the space for the opposition. His pace also allows full-back Antonio Valencia to bomb forward safe in the knowledge that Bailly is often well placed to provide cover should the opposition recover the ball and transition quickly.
Mourinho likes his defenders to defend first and foremost with bringing the ball out from the back left most often to the midfield. The link between this tactic and United’s inability to display any form of potency in attack against big teams is an interesting angle but one that we’ll explore on another day. Sticking to Bailly, the Ivorian’s role in build up play is usually quite conservative. The simple pass to another centre-half is an option he often uses. He also combines with Valencia and the right sided central midfielder to form a triangle in order to progress play on the wing.