When Manchester United’s players mobbed Eric Bailly after the final whistle blew on Friday night, seconds after his block denied Aston Villa’s Keinan Davis an all-but certain equaliser, the scenes were symbolic for two reasons.
Firstly, the celebrations spoke to just how important the three points were - drawing United level with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table, only second on goal difference.
The long-awaited game in hand will be played next Tuesday at Turf Moor, then there’s a trip to Anfield the following Sunday. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are to mount a title challenge, it starts here.
But the celebrations were also meaningful because of who was at the centre of them.
Bailly had just made his fourth consecutive appearance of the Christmas period, having played 90 minutes each time and impressed in all four games.
The last-gasp block on Davis was undoubtedly the highlight of this mini-renaissance so far, but there was also the crucial interception to prevent Adama Traoré moving through one-on-one while the game was still goalless against Wolves, and the ease and assurance he showed on his first outing in two-and-a-half months at Everton.
“You can see today his physicality, his pace and his bravery is second to none really,” Solskjaer said in his post-match press conference on Friday, clearly delighted that a player who he has rarely been able to call upon is not only fit but also performing. His team-mates are delighted too.
“You can see how much it means for him but the rest of the boys at the end of the game. He's such a well-liked player and a man in the dressing room,” Solskjaer added. “Everyone wants him to do well, they know the struggles he's had and we're delighted for him.”
When Bailly was one of United’s worst offenders in the 6-1 debacle against Tottenham and subsequently picked up a muscle injury, such an impressive return to form appeared a long way off.
He had been the only new name in a starting line-up that had established itself as Solskjaer’s best during Project Restart. Solskjaer has not named the XI that started against Tottenham ever since.
And yet only a few months later, the idea of Bailly becoming an established starter for the first time in years does not seem so far-fetched.
If he is to play regularly again, he is competing for just one place. Harry Maguire’s struggles at the start of the season attracted much attention but his recovery over the last few months has drawn little by comparison. Any suggestion that he is not United’s best centre-half has been dismissed.
Maguire’s lack of pace is not so easily fixed though and needs to be counterbalanced when playing against the quickest frontlines. And though Victor Lindelof - currently sidelined with a back injury - has established himself as Maguire’s first-choice partner since the start of last season, it is not because he is particularly fast.
That isn’t to say that Lindelof doesn’t have his strengths - he is generally comfortable and sometimes even ambitious in possession, which suits the way Solskjaer wants to play - but his aerial ability and positioning still leave something to be desired and it is noticeable how opponents often target his side.
By contrast, Bailly is more comfortable defending one-on-one, while his superior athleticism and speed on the turn naturally complements Maguire.
There is an assertiveness about Bailly which can sometimes spill over into rashness - as with the lunge on John McGinn against Villa that could easily have led to more than just a yellow card - but United’s defending under Solskjaer occasionally has the problem of being too passive.
Nearly five years on from his arrival, there is clearly still a role for a centre-back of Bailly’s ability only just entering his prime years. The decision to offer the 26-year-old a new contract last January spoke to that. But as ever, the one thing holding Bailly back is the “struggles” which Solskjaer referenced.
This was the first time in more than three years that Bailly had made four successive starts. In fact, he played more minutes between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day than he managed during all of the 2019-20 Premier League campaign.
Knee surgery prevented him from playing any part until February last season. Before that, there were ankle issues and groin problems. Minor muscle injuries and concussions - like the one suffered in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea in July - have disrupted progress along the way.
Solskjaer suggested that this brittleness is a product of Bailly’s assertive approach. “He’s got a style of play that has caused him to be injured a few times and probably muscle fibres that may have caused him some injuries as well,” he posited. And if those are the main causes of his injury problems, they are not so easy to fix.
There has always been excitement around Bailly given his natural ability and an eagerness for him to become the centre-half that looked capable of becoming upon his arrival in Manchester.
But after the last three seasons of injury setbacks, there has to be caution and patience too, and no more post-match pile-ons.
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