Since retuning to the first-team fold last month following a three-month injury layoff, Manchester United centre-back Eric Bailly has made just two substitute appearances, totalling a miserly ten minutes of action.
The Ivory Coast defender, who so impressed in his first season at Old Trafford after his relatively unheralded £30million arrival from Villarreal in the summer of 2016, has only made eight Premier League starts this term – the last of which coming in a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on November 5.
José Mourinho appears to be taking an ultra-cautious approach to reintegrating Bailly into his side. Bringing him on for the final nine minutes of late-February’s victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford, and utilising him as an auxiliary defensive midfielder in the final throes of an FA Cup victory over Huddersfield Town the week before.
However, if United hope to keep Liverpool‘s relentless attack at bay when they host the Merseysiders on Saturday, they will need Bailly in their line-up.
On paper, United’s backline has been performing relatively well this season, despite being without their most gifted defender for much of the campaign, with their 20 goals conceded the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League.
However, the Red Devils’ underlying defensive statistics are worrying. Mourinho’s men have an expected goals against (xGA) total for the season so far of 34.18, meaning the quality of chances they are allowing, ordinarily, would have led to more goals being shipped – they have the brilliance of David de Gea to thank for their fine defensive record.
Recently, in Bailly’s absence, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf have been the preferred pairing at the heart of the backline, but the duo are yet to convince.
Smalling has been at United since 2010, but has never quite developed as hoped, still suffering from the kind of defensive lapses only excusable in a much less experienced centre-back. And the Swede, a £31million summer signing from Benfica, is still adapting to the rigours of the Premier League and cannot yet be considered a reliable presence.
With Liverpool the next visitors to Old Trafford, it is imperative United put their best foot forward. The Reds are their closest challengers for second place as the season approaches its business end, with only two points separating the sides.
The dynamic trio, stocked with pace, inventiveness and a clinical touch in front of goal, have hit the net a combined 45 times in the Premier League this term, with Salah accounting for 24 of those strikes.
Faced with such a fearsome attacking trident, Mourinho must consider bringing Bailly back into the fray. The Portuguese is evidently planning a gradual reintroduction for the 24-year-old, who, with so few minutes under his belt of late, will understandably been lacking match sharpness.
But even if he can only give United an hour, or even if he is only firing at 85 per cent capacity, Bailly is needed at the back against Liverpool.
The former Espanyol youngster is the only defender on the Red Devils’ books with enough pace to keep up with the likes of Salah, Firmino and Mané – Smalling, Lindelöf, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo would all be left for dust by the prolific Reds trio.
Bailly is arguably also the best one-v-one defender in the Premier League, meaning he will not be daunted by the prospect of staring down the barrel of any Liverpool attacker, backing himself to wrestle possession from any on-rushinig foe.
And if any of his defensive colleagues lose their own individual battles with Jürgen Klopp’s attackers, Bailly’s tremendous recovery pace, as he has demonstrated time and again, is a reliable insurance policy, sweeping up to ensure De Gea is not unduly employed.
In an ideal world, Mourinho would not need to rush his star centre-back’s recovery. However, United’s current predicament is far from ideal. Sure, behind this rampant Manchester City side, second is as much as they can hope for, so to that end they are on par.
But the gap to Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea is too narrow to take chances.
With a top-four finish far from assured, United cannot afford to leave Bailly on the bench against Liverpool.