Why Eric Bailly could be a big hit at Manchester United

Play had been stopped seconds beforehand, but Eric Bailly didn’t know that. While referee Craig Pawson was calling a halt to the game to deal with an injury at the other end of the field, Bailly was chasing after Leicester City’s title-winning hero Jamie Vardy. It was a chase that ended up with Vardy sprawled on the floor, sent flying by one of the most forceful shoulder charges he’s probably ever had to deal with.

It counted for nothing but the cheer of delight from the Manchester United fans was heartfelt. They’d found a new hero.

This was Bailly’s first competitive appearance for United, having arrived from Villarreal for around £30m during the summer. It was an extraordinary amount of money to play for a man who had only one full season in La Liga. He was a bit-part season in the previous campaign for the Yellow Submarine, having made only five first-team appearances for Espanyol in the two seasons before that.

But one appearance for United at Wembley showed just why Jose Mourinho spent so much to bring him to Old Trafford.

Powerful centre-back

At 6ft 1in, Bailly isn’t the tallest centre-back in the world but his strength and power was there for all to see. Don’t be surprised if he picks up a few bookings over the course of the season - one came his way in the second half against Leicester, after another challenge on Vardy. At 22, he may make the odd mistake, too.

But the Ivory Coast international was hugely impressive in the Community Shield, playing alongside Daley Blind in the heart of defence. He will eventually face competition from Chris Smalling, who has missed pre-season games with injury and will also miss the opening Premier League season at Bournemouth because of a one-match ban for his red card in last season’s FA Cup final. But on this performance, it looks like Blind who is more at risk of losing his place than Bailly.

Here's what Jose Mourinho thought of Eric Bailly's Man of the Match performance. #MUTVHDhttps://t.co/f097lSj0TU

— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 7, 2016

In Bailly, it looks like they have a man with the potential to become one of the top defenders in world football

Manchester United had a decent defensive record under Louis van Gaal, but there was still a sense that their backline lacked power and presence at times. Blind, in particular, could sometimes be outmuscled by opponents.

In Bailly, it looks like they have a man with the potential to become one of the top defenders in world football, a man who no striker would want to run into. Just ask Jamie Vardy.

Pogba to enhance Zlatan and Rooney

“One game, one trophy,” was how Zlatan Ibrahimovic predicted his competitive debut for Manchester United would turn out. He was right. Ask Ibrahimovic, and he will tell you he usually is.

That Zlatan delivered the winning goal without delivering the best performance he has ever produced was perhaps encouraging, because 200 miles further north perhaps the most pivotal moment of United’s season was taking place, as Paul Pogba prepared to undergo a medical ahead of his world record transfer to Old Trafford.

The likelihood is that Pogba will be in the starting line-up at Bournemouth next Sunday, and even in victory at Wembley there were signs of why he could be crucial to Jose Mourinho’s new United - and to their new strike partnership in particular.

It’s still very early days for the combination of Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney, but there were signs that they may need more energy around them if they are to find their absolute top form. This isn’t and cannot realistically be the Ibrahimovic and Rooney of 10 years ago. Ibrahimovic is 34, Rooney 30. When two players possess such talent, it can certainly still work - but it may need to work in a different way.

The combination between Rooney and an ageing Robin van Persie moving into his early 30s eventually foundered because both lacked the legs they once possessed, and Louis van Gaal’s slow, possession-based system didn’t provide the energy in midfield to compensate for that. For largely the same reason, Radamel Falcao never hit it off with either Rooney or Van Persie.

At Wembley, there were some indications that Ibrahimovic and Rooney will similarly need support if United are to break down defences week in week out. On occasions they seemed too static. Ibrahimovic was quiet for long periods - largely devoid of service in the box, and sometimes sloppy in possession as he attempted to drop deeper and get involved.

It's a trophy at the very first time of asking for Jose at @ManUtd. #CommunityShieldpic.twitter.com/FL93a9WtkI

— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) August 7, 2016

Rooney was a little more lively, back in the No.10 role just behind his new Swedish team-mate, although there were times when the duo were still working out who drops deeper and who stands up front. On one occasion, Rooney gestured to Ibrahimovic to stand up front as United defended a throw-in. Ibrahimovic simply pointed back at him, so Rooney relented and did it himself.

There were times too when Rooney dropped deep for the ball, looked up and found Ibrahimovic simply too far away to pick out the killer pass. That understanding will come, and it should be remembered that Rooney scored 34 goals in 2009/10 - his joint best haul for a season - while playing alongside Dimitar Berbatov, a man who similarly liked to drop deep into midfield.

Then, though, Rooney still had the explosive pace to dart in behind when Berbatov came short. Without that, the key would seem to be energy around United’s new strike duo.

Jesse Lingard provided that at Wembley, racing straight through the Leicester City defence to put United in front. But there still wasn’t a lot of energy in central midfield, with Michael Carrick partnering Marouane Fellaini.

True, it was a hot day not entirely conducive to Mourinho’s more high tempo style, but there still seemed too much of the Van Gaal ponderous build-up in the heart of the midfield.

“We are changing principles of play and that takes time. For the second goal, last year maybe Antonio Valencia wouldn’t have crossed the ball, maybe he would have passed it inside," Mourinho said after the game, although he did make a point of thanking Van Gaal for getting them to the Community Shield in the first place. Those thanks, after all, had the convenient benefit of allowing him another dig at Rafa Benitez for claiming the glory for winning the FIFA Club World Cup at Inter Milan, shortly after Mourinho had won the Champions League.

Pogba seems likely to take United significantly away from Van Gaal's style of play, marauding forward from the centre of midfield, committing opponents, creating openings. He’s the type of central midfielder that United have been crying out for now for some time, but there aren’t too many of them around. When Mourinho hinted a while back that he had another two potential midfield targets should the Pogba deal fall through, it was hard to envisage who he could possibly bring in to do what Pogba will be asked to do. Dele Alli perhaps? Even that is a stretch.

It's that man Zlatan. #ZlatanTime#CommunityShieldhttps://t.co/TrzBvAr26B

— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) August 7, 2016

It will be Pogba though, that much now seems clear, and that extra midfield dynamism may well make all the difference. Ibrahimovic and Rooney certainly have the nous and the experience to make the most of the openings that a player like Pogba will surely create.

Unlike the Van Gaal era, Mourinho knows he cannot ask his forwards to do it all on their own. If United are to be one of Europe’s most potent attacking forces once more, the key will lie in midfield.

Mata gets that sinking feeling

It seems unlikely, though, that Juan Mata will feature significantly in that midfield - not after the way the Spaniard was hauled off at Wembley, half an hour after being introduced as a substitute.

There were echoes of Mourinho’s decision to bring off half-time sub Nemanja Matic in a home defeat to Southampton last season, at the height of Chelsea’s unexpected implosion.

This time Mourinho explained that he wanted to bring on Henrikh Mkhitaryan and did not want to substitute the taller Ibrahimovic or Fellaini as Leicester hurled long throw after long throw into the box late on, but Mata did not look happy.

But it was Mourinho who turned Mata from two-time player of the season into an bit-part player at Stamford Bridge, before the former Valencia man made it clear he’d had enough and was sold to United.

There was immediate speculation about Mata’s future once Mourinho was appointed as United’s new boss early in the summer. This was certainly not a promising start to Mata’s second spell under Mourinho’s management.

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