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Should Tottenham seek to reunite Eric Bailly and Jose Mourinho?

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The center back is linked away from United and has worked with Jose before.

I’m not typically a fan of newly instated managers bringing in players from their past stints. These transfers make sense to a certain extent, if there is bidirectional desire to keep the working relationship going and there is a fit between the squad and the player.

Mounrinho being linked to Matic and Willian is yawn-inducing though. Links to players like Ryan Fraser and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are far more exciting since both have plenty of room to grow.

Eric Bailly represents both of both worlds; at 26 years of age he is yet to reach his potential as a center back, and has worked well with Mourinho during his time at Manchester United. It’s no secret that Spurs will be in the market for a new center back when the transfer window opens; Jan Vertonghen’s age has sadly caught up with him, and with Juan Foyth rumored to be on the way out, that would leave Mourinho with a choice of Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez, Japhet Tanganga, and Eric Dier for the heart of his defense. With Alderweireld at 31, succession planning for Tottenham’s defense is not only a priority but a necessity going into next season.

Mourinho personally called Bailly to make him his first signing for United back in 2016. Four years later, Bailly seems to still have the quality that made him a top target for clubs back then.

Bailly’s Fit into Mourinho’s System

Bailly last played more than 1000 minutes back in the 2017/18 season, and just recently came back from an injury that allowed him to play a key role in Manchester United’s two goal victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (along with some Europa League victories as well). Without a doubt his injury record is a case for concern, but I’ll address this later - for now let’s look at his on-pitch performance.

I decided to analyze how he plays for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United - it would be disingenuous to look at his performances from 2016 and 2017 and say “See? Mourinho used him well in that system and can replicate that at Spurs.” Players change, specially after long injury spells.

However, Bailly has shown that he still has the attributes that made him an enticing prospect back in 2016, and could prove a shrewd signing for Spurs if Mourinho was interested in linking up with him again.

Ole’s System of Play

No player in the sport plays in vacuum, so its important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of how Ole sets up his team defensively. At Stamford Bridge, United lined up with a back three of Shaw - Maguire - Bailly, with Williams and Wan-Bissaka acting as wingbacks for the left and right side respectively. United executed an extremely aggressive and high press, with Bailly and Fred tasked to cover the space that Wan-Bissaka left behind or join the press.

United wanted to give Chelsea players as little time on the ball as possible, even demanding that Bailly step up from his defensive line in an aggressive manner. Squeezing Chelsea players proved to be a successful yet risky game plan.

Ole gave Bailly license to press - Ole trusted his pace and stamina to get fall back to his defensive line, but the space was there for Chelsea to exploit the entire match. Very rarely, however, did the midfield link up well enough to find the free man who could then play a forward in with a defense-splitting pass.

Bailly pressures Pedro but in so doing leaves a gap for Mount or Batshuayi to run into. At first I thought this was a positional mistake by Bailly, but after it occurred four or five times I realized it must have been an instruction given to him by Ole.
Another instance in which Ole’s aggressive pressing tactics puts Bailly in a bad position, this time against Club Brugge. He pressures Tau, who lays the ball off to a teammate, and runs in behind Bailly to exploit the open space.

With Mourinho opting for a much more compact, even static, defensive style, the contrast between the two systems is night and day. However, Spurs do find themselves in similar situations when Aurier plays as a wingback in possession, and the left sided fullback pinches in to create a back three.

Swap the red shirts with white, and this would look like a Spurs attack with Aurier as the free man on the right side.

Bailly is quite used to playing in a back three formation in possession, and has the physical qualities to cover for a marauding Aurier effectively.

Bailly’s Personal Attributes

Bailly finished his season at Villareal garnering plaudits for his confidence on the ball, ability to read the game to break up opposition build up, and his physicality and aggression in regaining possession. With decent ability in the air as well, he’s historically had a similar defensive style to Alderwiereled and Vertonghen in their time at Spurs.

He still has these attributes and exhibited them well against Chelsea.

Confidence on the Ball

Even though it was his first game back from injury, Bailly played with a sense of calm on the ball that you don’t see with too many defenders. Although this got him into troublesome positions in the first half, for the most part he managed the ball well and was adept at understanding when he could play it out from the back or when a clearance was necessary.

Chelsea are on the break, and Bailly shifts to cover Batshuayi’s run. Spurs centerbacks, barring Sanchez, lack pace, and have been susceptible to counterattacks since the beginning of the season.
Bailly takes the ball off Batshuayi, and although he’s under pressure, he pirouettes around the Chelsea player to open up his passing options. United are then able to transition to attack.

Later in the game, in a situation in which most defenders would clear their lines, Bailly had Batshuayi in circles as the Chelsea attacker tried to press him.

Bailly intercepts a ball intended for Batshuayi in the box.
Bailly completes a Parker-esque turn around Batshuayi to shake off the Chelsea attacker’s press.
Bailly can now pick his head up with the space and time that he has gained, make a progressive pass and start a United counter attack.

No doubt certain Spurs fans are getting flashbacks to Spurs centerbacks dawdling on the ball right in front of goal and losing possession. Mourinho’s system, however, demands that Spurs attacking players explode out of the middle third with pace to attack. Ball retention and measured progressive passing is required for this to work, and Bailly does this well.

Reading the Game and Disrupting Opposition Build Up

As noted above, Bailly picked up an interception inside the box, and played his way out of pressure well. Since Ole tasked his players (minus Maguire) to press the opposition when they saw an opportunity to do so, Bailly got involved in defensive action higher up the pitch as well.

Pedro plays a weak pass to Mount, and Matic is just far away enough to not be able to pressure Mount effectively. Bailly jumps in front of Mount to gain possession.
After Bailly nicks the ball, he passes it to Daniel James while simultaneously running into the space between Kovacic and Jorginho to progress the attack.

Looking for a 1-2 is simple in football, but for a center back on his first game back from injury, to be aggressive yet calm in progressing the play showcases a lot of courage. Averaging around 3.1 interceptions at Villareal, and 2.3 in the seasons he’s played more than 10 games at United it doesn’t look like he’s lost much of his stride.

Last Ditch Tackles

It’s hard to think about anyone replacing one of the Belgians at Tottenham without having the ability to accelerate quickly and put their bodies on the line in order to block a shot. There is nothing tactically complicated about this, rather it again exemplifies that after being injured for half of a season, Bailly came in with a brave attitude and closing down two clear chances at goal; one for Kovacic, and the other for Azpilicueta.

After United give up possession in their defensive third, Bailly shifts over from the right and closes Kovacic down just in time to block his shot.
Bailly with another tackle to block a point-blank shot from Azpilicueta. Between Bailly’s match saving tackles and VAR, it just wasn’t Chelsea’s day.

Frankly, this type of intensity has been missing from Tottenham’s backline ever since Pochettino and the team’s downward spiral. Bailly’s performance against Chelsea was nothing short of courageous, confident, and imposing.

Injuries

Part of the reason that it’s hard to analyze Bailly on the pitch is his injury problems. According to Transfermarkt:

Two seasons in which he’s missed more than half of the season is very worrisome. It’s tough to find details on the the particular injuries themselves, but this would be by far the biggest hesitation when it comes to considering if Bailly is a viable transfer target for Spurs. If (and this is a huge one) Bailly can stay fit, its worth keeping tabs on his performances for United the rest of the season.

Between his injury history and the admittedly small sample size of matches he’s played recently, it’s impossible to say that Spurs should definitely sign him in the summer. But the encouraging signs are there - he’s still the same player that warranted a call from Mourinho. With United soon to be in the market for another hallmark center back signing, its worth keeping tabs on Bailly.