Eric Bailly has proved to be a popular figure among Manchester United fans since signing for Jose Mourinho in his first summer at the club. He’s the closest thing they’ve seen to Nemanja Vidic, with his agility, knack for a good tackle and bravery making him everything supporters want from a defender.
The only drawback has been how injury-prone he has been in his two seasons at the club. He’s suffered eight different injuries, ranging from knee ligament damage, to ankle injuries, to groin strain.
After playing in almost every game of the opening months of the season, his ankle injury in the first weekend of November saw him ruled out until the end of February. He made a couple of substitute appearances before being ready to start his first game of 2018 when United beat Liverpool in March. His next league appearance was the 90 minutes he played in the 3-2 win over Manchester City, but that was his last game.
Chris Smalling has started every match since and has been partnered with Phil Jones or Victor Lindelof.
The obvious assumption from United fans was Bailly was still struggling for fitness but on Thursday, ahead of the game against Brighton, Mourinho explained the odd reason behind Bailly’s exclusion.
“Bailly is fine, no injury,” Mourinho revealed. “Honestly, my work is not about World Cups and preparing players for the World Cup or giving chances to players to do the World Cup, but he’s the only central defender whose country’s not in the World Cup.
“So, if I have to make a kind of more emotional, effective choice to try to help my players, he’s the one I am not going to help until the end of the season. Because, of course, Marcos Rojo, Victor Lindelof, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, all of them are wishing to make the squad for the World Cup and Eric is not under that pressure.”
Hold on, let’s get this straight.
With an FA Cup final a couple of weeks away, Mourinho claims he isn’t preparing his team in the best possible way to win that competition, by getting his best available defenders ready, but is instead giving playing time to other defenders so they have a better chance of making their World Cup squads.
In Smalling’s case, that is more understandable, given he was left out of Gareth Southgate’s most recent England squad. His performances have been decent more recently too, with his status not harmed by the important goals he’s scored against City, Palace and Bournemouth. But the idea that a manager would prioritise his player’s World Cup chances over the success of the team he manages is pretty bonkers.
“I try to be a good team manager and that means being cold, being selfish, but I am not as bad as that and I still have space for a little bit of feelings,” Mourinho continued. “So, when I look to the other four central defenders fighting for a position in the World Cup, I’m giving less [time] to Eric.”
As with anything that Mourinho says, it’s hard to know whether he’s speaking the truth or covering the truth up, but if this is the genuine reason, it shows a side of the manager people don’t see or like to talk about too often.
This is the Mourinho who was prepared to make fun of himself by playing in goal to raise the profile and the money raised in ‘Game 4 Grenfell’. And the Mourinho who gave a Mexican cleaner, a lifelong Real Madrid fan, the job of kit man. And the Mourinho who goes in to opposition dressing rooms after defeats to congratulate them. And the Mourinho who writes a letter to a 94-year-old supporter who had suffered from a stroke. And so on.
Of course, the list of his misdemeanours is too long to mention here and there’s no suggestion that he’s one of football’s good guys.
He’s done plenty of abhorrent things, but he’s a mass of contradictions, who is capable of both truly appalling and overwhelmingly kind actions.
Is the promotion of Lindelof, Jones and Smalling really the generous gesture Mourinho claims it is? We’ll probably never know. But there can’t be too many United fans who are happy about it, whatever his motivations.
Bailly is the best defender United have and they will want him fit and raring to go for Wembley. If those other defenders are relying on good performances now to make their World Cup squads, that’s their own issue. The priority for the fans and manager has to be ensuring success for the club, so Bailly needs more playing time in the run up to the FA Cup final.