When Ray Charles sang ‘if it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all’ he probably didn’t expect the melancholic mood to sum up the career of a well-remunerated professional footballer.
But Eric Bailly’s misfortune at Manchester United now extends to a positive Covid-19 test while on international duty, at a time when he might well have been back in the side had he been able to return to England.
Instead, Bailly had to watch United’s edgy win over Brighton from abroad and he’d have noticed Harry Maguire drew level with him on 100 appearances for the club, despite the Ivorian having a three-year head start.
Bailly’s fortunes seemed to have turned around the New Year when he started seven of United’s nine games between December 23 and January 20. At the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sounded encouraged about his form and fitness.
Since then there have been just four starts and only one of those has been in the Premier League. The website Transfermarkt records three separate injury absences since January 20, which takes the number of separate injuries that have forced him to miss at least one game while at United, according to their records, to 14. By contrast Maguire has been available for 106 of the 109 games United have played since he joined for £80million.
Bailly’s contract expires next summer and while he only turns 27 next week his reliability is an issue, especially given United’s lack of a third-choice central defender.
Victor Lindelof was listed as a doubt to face Brighton on Friday but in the end he came through the game and the Swede and Maguire have now started 12 of United’s last 16 fixtures in all competitions.
Bailly’s unavailability meant Axel Tuanzebe was the next cab off the rank but since a poor performance against Sheffield United at the end of January he’s played just 50 minutes of football, with 45 of those in the second half of the second leg against Real Sociedad, when the game was already done.
Solskjaer has always had high hopes for Tuanzebe but the academy graduate is now 23 and if he’s really to be trusted he needs to be playing more often. Injuries have hampered his development but he has played just 323 minutes of Premier League football since the start of last season.
United have been fortunate with the durability of Maguire and Lindelof since the start of last season, even if the latter has to play through the pain barrier with his back at times this season. They’ve partnered each other in 58 of the 68 Premier League games United have played since Maguire arrived at the club.
But United need only glance down the East Lancs Road to realise the virtue of having a reliable and resilient back-up defensive option. Liverpool’s season collapsed on the back of their three senior centre backs all suffering serious injury. Jurgen Klopp’s side went into the season with only three senior central defenders, the third of which, in Joel Matip, is wrapped in bubble wrap during the week and struggles to play back-to-back games.
United have more defensive options, but the question isn’t over quantity, it’s over quality and fitness. Bailly is injury-prone and that doesn’t seem likely to change, Tuanzebe has struggled to make his mark and Phil Jones is completely out of the picture. If either Maguire or Lindelof suffered a serious injury then United’s options would be limited.
Solskjaer will hope it doesn’t come to that and, quietly, both of his first-choice central defenders have had a good season. Strengthening at the heart of defence remains on his radar, however, but funds will be tight this summer and there are other areas of the squad that might need investment as well, particularly in attack.
The best way to strengthen your back-up options in defence is to sign a new first-teamer. That would relegate Lindelof, but he would be an outstanding third-choice and would still get plenty of games. In the absence of such a move, United might need to look at cheaper alternatives to offer a bit more insurance at centre back.
Maguire and Lindelof have been tough as teak since the start of last season, but their workload is substantial and they will both feature in the European Championship this summer. Cashing in on Bailly is an option, but United must find that reliable third-choice centre back in time for next season.