José Mourinho has become quite popular for working with African talent, and throughout his career, he has developed several stars from scratch or helped them progress in their careers and made them crucial cornerstones for his club’s successes. From Didier Drogba, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien at Chelsea to Sulley Muntari and Samuel Eto’o at Inter Milan, he has carried this trend to Manchester with his purchase of Eric Bailly in the summer of 2016, which was his first arrival since taking over the reins at Old Trafford.
Arriving for a hefty £30 million from Villarreal, the deal was initially frowned upon as Bailly was a relatively unknown footballer who just had one good season in his career and had a huge responsibility dropped on his young, inexperienced shoulders. But Mourinho’s shrewd scouting and analysis has made this deal a success, and nearly 18 months after arriving at Manchester United, he may be one of his best ever-signings. The Ivorian international, who is still only 23, has strengthened an often indecisive and inconsistent back-line and has played a huge part in making them one of the sternest defences in Europe over the last two seasons.
Eric Bailly’s European adventure started off at 17, when he joined the Espanyol academy in 2011 after impressing in a youth tournament in Burkina Faso. After work permit issues delayed his start at the club, he began training with the club’s “B” side and made his senior debut in the 2014-15 season, quickly overcoming the competition and cementing a spot in the first-team. His time with the Espanyol first-team was short lived, as the club’s financial issues coincided with Villarreal’s search for the departing Gabriel Paulista and he was brought for a paltry €5.7 million in to become their new, long-term star at the back.
In his first full season, he would be unmissable against the big guns against La Liga, as he was influential in shutting out that season’s Champions League finalists Atlético Madrid both home and away, while also impressing in defeats to Barcelona. However, his most impressive showing that season came early against Rafa Benitez’s Real Madrid, who they beat 1-0 at home as Bailly showed his versatility by playing at right-back and keeping the Los Blancos front-line silent. Villarreal finished with 17 clean sheets that season and ended up finishing fourth, thus qualifying for the Champions League, but Bailly’s continuously rising stock meant that he would be playing Europa League football the following campaign under one of the sport’s greatest managers at one of the world’s biggest teams – Manchester United.
Bailly’s arrival has brought much-needed robustness to the Manchester United defence. The Ivorian has been one of the best players in the Mourinho era as they romped to two trophies in his first season – including a title on the continental stage. He’s learned in the exact way Mourinho and the United faithful would’ve expected to, and that is visible in his performance and statistics. A typically errant defender, he has toned down on one of his biggest flaws, which was his recklessness while going into challenges. He’s picked up fewer league bookings over the last season-and-a- half in United red than he did in his final season at Villarreal, and while that is a sign of his increasing maturity, his composure must also be credited. There is also a significant improvement in the statistics concerning his tackle success rate and fouls committed, despite playing in a more volatile and physical league.
Another one of his improvements has been his control and calmness on the ball. His time at Villarreal regularly had him losing focus on the ball – a fault which has was often exposed, take a game against Atlético Madrid for example, where Fernando Torres got the better of him in such a situation. Bailly has rarely made an error at the back, which is fully expected in a Mourinho team as his persistence on improving the back-line not only creates solid defences, but also better, more concentrated individuals who show the necessary leadership required to be successful. He is an example of Mourinho’s orthodox methodology, and at the end of his career, he will certainly credit a lot of his success to the Portuguese manager.
On the international scene, Bailly slowly building up quite the reputation as well. He made his Ivory Coast debut in 2015, and was on the roster that won that year’s African Cup Of Nations tournament. Since then, he has unsurprisingly become a mainstay in the team, and will be one of the players to watch in the side if they are able to make it to the World Cup next summer. Undoubtedly the continent’s best centre-half, he also received acclaim for his growth over the last year with a nomination for CAF’s Player of the Year. A nomination alongside the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah means that Bailly snapping up the award seems unlikely, nevertheless, it is still quite an honour for the 23-year- old defender.
Still at a young age, and still yet to hit his peak, the future is exciting for Eric Bailly. José Mourinho’s faith in the Ivorian has paid off so far, and if he is able to carry on improving, the £30 million cheque sent over to El Madrigal in 2016 will turn out to be a bargain. He’s gone from being a relatively unknown quantity to one of the best defenders in the Premier League in quick time, and that is a testament to his commitment, skill and enhancement over the last few months. He is an epitome of a typical Mourinho footballer, and an example of the effort required to make it to the top. One can only imagine what he is set to provide in the coming years, but for now, it is imperative that both club and country build their back-lines around him.
By: Karan M. Tejwani/@karan_tejwani26