Manchester United may have progressed through to the Europa League final after a 1-1 draw on Thursday night, but the frantic finale to the game at Old Trafford has cost them dearly.
After Celta Vigo’s equaliser, a bust-up between the two teams saw Eric Bailly, easily United’s most impressive defender this season, lose his cool and get sent off for a swipe at Vigo striker John Guidetti.
It seems remarkable that a player with no Premier League experience going into this season has completely outshone more proven defenders at the club, but then again, Jose Mourinho has always had an eye for defensive talent.
Bailly was Mourinho’s first signing as United manager, for £30 million, and he’s more than lived up to his price tag.
Indeed, despite a brief spell on the sidelines earlier in the season which allowed Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo to have a period where they looked like an excellent centre-back pairing, the 23-year-old has been at the heart of every successful defensive partnership this season.
Whether it’s been alongside Rojo, Chris Smalling, or Daley Blind, the Ivorian has been the man who has given United’s back four solidity.
Indeed, it was telling that a bruising striker like Watford’s Troy Deeney critiqued the Arsenal defence by saying it had a “soft centre” with no defender that strikers would fear, Bailly was the player he used as a contrast.
The stats back up his reputation, not only as United’s best but as one of the best in the Premier League. While Chelsea duo Gary Cahill and David Luiz were the ones who made it into the PFA Team of the Year, Bailly has better numbers across just about every defensive metric.
He beats the duo in tackles, percentage of total duels won, interceptions, blocks, clearances, and fewest defensive errors.
In fact, Bailly’s on par with the other two defenders regarded among the best in the league – Spurs pair Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Bailly leads the duo in tackles, interceptions, and defensive errors, and splits them when it comes to duels, blocks, and clearances.
His absence in the Europa League final against Ajax will thus be a tough blow to United. To whom should they turn to as a replacement?
Blind looks set to retain his spot in the starting XI, and with Rojo, United’s other standout defender this season, out with a long-term injury, the choice for the other defender boils down to Smalling vs Jones.
The duo have had injury-hit campaigns, and Smalling seems to have regressed from the form he found under Louis Van Gaal which saw him look like one of England’s best defenders, and get elevated to the status as the Red Devils’ vice-captain.
Jones, whose whole United career has been blighted by injuries, has actually looked better this season than at any other point in his United career, barring perhaps his debut campaign.
The former Blackburn Rovers man filled in admirably for Bailly earlier in the season, looking assured alongside Rojo in a partnership that surprised most observers.
Statistically, both defenders would have a case to start the final. Smalling leads Jones in blocks (0.77 to 0.55 per 90 minutes) and clearances (8.95 to 8.15), but Jones is better in tackles (1.37 to 0.69), aerial duels (71.43% to 67.16%), total duels (64.55% to 60.82%), interceptions (1.78 to 0.77), and fewer defensive errors (0.07 to 0.17).
Looking at the numbers, Smalling seems to be the better backs-to-the-wall defender, which could suit Jose Mourinho if the United manager opts for a defensive gameplan again in the final.
Against Ajax’s free-flowing style, however, Jones’ better one-on-one defending and superior reading of the game would be more useful. With Kasper Dolberg, Bertrand Traore, and Amin Younes ready to run riot, this could be the perfect opportunity for Jones to begin to live up to Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous claim that the then-21-year-old could become United’s best-ever player.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man?