For a manager who has built one of the most successful managerial careers in football history on a foundation of defensive organisation, Jose Mourinho has only ever spent more than £10million on a centre-half on four separate occasions.
The first two times brought mixed results. Ricardo Carvalho established himself as one of the Premier League’s finest defenders after joining Chelsea for £20m. Kurt Zouma has enjoyed a slightly less spectacular spell at Stamford Bridge after signing ten years later for £12m.
The Portuguese has, more often than not, inherited the bases of his teams, or at least sourced them cheaply. Carvalho and Jorge Costa had long been at Porto by the time Mourinho took charge, as had John Terry at Chelsea. He had Walter Samuel bestowed upon him at Inter Milan, and paired him with the inexpensive Lucio. Pepe and Sergio Ramos were his lynchpins at Real Madrid, both of whom joined before he did.
If this summer proved anything, it is that Mourinho’s taste has become an incredibly expensive one. The rapid rise in the value of defensive players has seen goalkeepers move for £56m and £76.1m, while the most expensive striker in this most recent Premier League transfer window was Aleksandar Mitrovic at a positively measly £22m.
Manchester United were caught more flat-footed than anyone else by this seismic shift in emphasis. The leaks that came out on Friday morning summed up a quite embarrassing summer of mixed messages and finger-pointing, from which no-one emerged looking particular professional, nor especially wise.
So Mourinho’s hand was forced. He had to start Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof against Leicester; he had absolutely no choice. The two defenders he bought for £30m and £30.75m respectively over the last two years would have to be used. They had both accumulated dust over the summer after being discarded, forgotten about and completely overlooked as their manager ogled any and every 29-year-old defender in the vicinity. But needs must.
As it just so happened, they fared rather well. There were moments of panic from both – although no real blame can be attached to Leicester’s consolation – and should take comfort from their performances. This was a reminder that they both exist, at the very least.
Both made two tackles and one interception apiece, while Lindelof (9) edged Bailly (6) on clearances. The former completed 88.6% of his passes, while 95.8% of Bailly’s found its target.
Considering this was their first game together as a central defensive pairing, it was an undoubted positive. They had started together just once before, in a 4-1 victory over CSKA Moscow last September. Yet Chris Smalling was sat in the middle of them in a back three, as if to defuse any potential arguments.
There needn’t have been any precaution. Kelechi Iheanacho was thoroughly shackled all evening, with both Bailly and Lindelof enjoying moments of dominance in one-on-one situations against the Nigerian. At times, this looked like a partnership with decades of experience behind them.
James Maddison did test them, while Ricardo Pereira was equally difficult to deal with. The Leicester debutants combined well constantly on the right, and a momentary defensive lapse forced David de Gea into a fine save. The more things change…
Ahead of them, Paul Pogba was excellent. His early penalty was dispatched with ease, while his passing range was impeccable. Twenty-six days after the World Cup final, and with four days of pre-season under his belt, he was a level above the rest.
United needed him to be. Matteo Darmian was terrible, Alexis Sanchez was wasteful, Juan Mata was anonymous and Fred was solid if unspectacular. The left-back sealed victory with an fine finish after a miskick in the final ten minutes. This truly was the Shaw-shank redemption.
But for Bailly and Lindelof, these were great strides of progress, steps towards the light after months in the shade. They might not be the polished, finished article like Toby Alderweireld or Jerome Boateng, but they are potential diamonds, and deserve the chance to prove it. United – Mourinho – signed them for a reason.