As the pass crept beneath the left foot of Jamie Vardy, just as he made an effort to control the ball, the ball fell loose and a foot race suddenly emerged. For a few brief seconds, it seemed like Vardy held a marginal upper hand over Eric Bailly and would peel off into the distance towards the goal.
When he reached Bailly, positioned alongside him, Vardy retracted his upper body, readying himself, before thrusting his shoulders into the then 22-year old, in full expectance that he would be the single victor to walk away from the dual.
All to no avail: as Vardy very quickly discovered. Bailly’s power was too great too intense to oppose, he bounced off, left wobbling momentarily before he merely gave chase once more. Bailly collected possession of the ball, completely unperturbed. 10 minutes later his authority was cemented, as a Leicester player found himself advancing inside the penalty box. Again, it was Jamie Vardy, again, Bailly rebuffed his efforts; on this occasion through an impeccably-timed double-knee slide tackle. Welcome to England, Eric Bailly.
The irony, of course, was that he had imposed himself on the likes Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez during his two years in La Liga with Espanyol and Villarreal but Jamie Vardy, in the FA Community Shield, was deemed his first supposed validated test, pre-match. But yet, he had passed, and with flying colours.
The scale and depth of Bailly’s excellence last season has perhaps caught us off guard, with his transfer rather clouded due to the recruitment of that gleaming triumvirate; Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Hush, young boy, get out of the way, ITS ZLATAN TIME. Young boy, move aside you shan’t claim our spotlight. Young boy, return when you can find yourself a catchy hashtag. Unequivocally, the volume of those who would have pre-conceived Bailly to be the brightest gem, roughly one year ago, was few and far between.
Bailly’s performances in his first campaign have been a manifestation of a player that looks genuinely special, someone the United faithful can safely pin their hopes on, a player who plays with the brutality of a man, who’s just dedicated to the fight. A tyro leader from the back with a reassuring robustness, the ability to produce a penetrative pass when needed, and like his predecessor Nemanja Vidić he has the capability of dishing out the most unsparing clobbering. The type of clobbering that compels a gasp or wince at first observation.
Though, what unifies him is his almost-arrogant composure on the ball, a world away from the eternally apprehensive Chris Smalling, a player who bears, what feels like, a ticking time bomb — a blunder just on the horizon albeit you just can never quite decipher when. Bailly’s poise is delightfully refreshing.
“I see similarities with Rio Ferdinand,” said Espanyol’s reserve team coach Sergio Gonzalez of Eric Bailly. “Eric can really play. You get most players who turn up, train, go home. He’d be knocking on my door, asking for more videos, asking the fitness coaches for more tips.”
At 22, Bailly’s command on the pitch is striking, if even similar to another one of his forerunners. His strong communication with his backline, though English not his first or even second language, to some extent has led to him becoming a de facto captain of José Mourinho’s side; beckoning his teammates to cut down opportunities for opposing strikers, prompting when to step higher up the pitch. Skills, basics, you master as a schoolboy, no doubt, but he does them and exceedingly well.
One instance, most recently, from the Europa League Final, despite Bailly’s absence from the playing field, rests fresh in the memory. Mkhitaryan had just scored the second, a clever finish from a corner, and United, particularly the defence, anxiety-stricken, were retreating increasingly deep inside their own half. In the stands stood Eric Bailly, a palpably agitated bystander, arms upthrust in the air, roaring at Chris Smalling and Daley Blind to position themselves further up the field, to not sit so deep. Now, we do not know if the pair quite caught the words of Bailly as they bided in a similar spot for the remaining minutes, though, the sense lingers Bailly would have certainly made the relevant rectification if he were present on the turf of the Friends Arena that night.
The advantage Bailly boasts proceeding into next term will, of course, be the practice of having played one season in the Premier League; one season of adjusting to Manchester, one season of securing the manager’s trust — whilst, though, it is easy to overlook its value, the privilege of Mourinho’s trust must not be understated. Trust is and has always remained, the glue that sustains José Mourinho teams. He desires, craves, being encircled with chock-a-block of players he has utmost belief in. And, yet, Bailly seemed to unlocked his reliance within his opening weeks at United.
There has some been some clamouring regarding Bailly’s ferocity, scrutiny over his apparent over-aggression. But, frankly, Bailly plainly just requires further experience. There is no sizeable repertoire needed to be instilled into him, no obvious skill deficiencies. Just experience. As he’s exposed to the upper echelons of Champions League football when he confronts the elite forwards on a frequent basis, as he partakes in more cup finals, as his wisdom is enhanced, he will hone this rashness, after all, time is on his side.
Whilst it may be obvious, Bailly cannot do everything all alone, José Mourinho will need to acquire him a partner this summer — unless he supplies him with the poised, and seemingly ready, teenage Axel Tuanzebe. For all his prowess, Bailly cannot evolve as a defender without a fixed partner. However, there is little uncertainty, through whatever the summer brings, or whatever it does not, Bailly will have a new comrade in defence next season, a new partnership, and if all bodes well, a long-term one.