Manchester United cannot win on all fronts this summer. They certainly could not win where Eric Bailly’s contract situation is concerned.
Whatever action the club decided to take on Bailly, a 27-year-old who has played fewer United games than Fred and Harry Maguire — who arrived a respective two and three years after him — would have attracted criticism.
Allowing Bailly to leave with one year of his contract remaining, likely for a fee smaller than the £30million United paid for him in 2016, would have been folly. The Ivory Coast international is a wonderfully talented defender, arguably the most naturally gifted centre-back on the club’s books, but he is also a walking injury worry, as brittle and combustible as they come.
That is why the club had to keep him, despite the injury record, with a contract announcement released by the club on Monday.
It means Bailly could stretch his stay at United to a possible nine years, having signed a three-year extension with the option of a further 12 months. How many more appearances will he add to his current 100 by 2024, say?
Contract extensions are always a gamble with players of Bailly’s age, but this one feels especially fraught with concern — hence the criticism from another half of United’s fanbase.
They are worried Bailly may be another Marcos Rojo, or Phil Jones, centre-backs who bafflingly received extensions from the United hierarchy in March 2018 (Rojo) and February 2019 (Jones).
United moved heaven and earth to offload Rojo back to Argentina, finally achieving the feat in January when he went to Boca Juniors, while Jones is still contracted to the club until June 2023 — and he hasn’t played a single minute since January 2020, in the pre-pandemic days (remember those?).
To compare Bailly to Rojo and Jones is unfair on footballing merit, but some believe United are dicing with a similar level of contract mistake.
The truth is, of course, somewhere in between the two extremes, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping and praying he gets a fully fit Bailly for an unbroken season in 2021/22. Praying might be necessary — because it hasn’t happened since Bailly’s debut campaign at Old Trafford, 2016/17. He hasn’t made it to 20 appearances in all competitions since then.
“Eric has played well when he’s played,” Solskjaer said earlier this month, during another Bailly absence, this time as he self-isolated in Ivory Coast after contracting covid-19.
“I know there has been speculation. We are talking to him about his contract. I don’t see any issues with him.”
Solskjaer was obviously referring to the logistics of Bailly’s contract negotiations, but to claim there are no issues with the player is to ignore the mistakes that have been made in this area before at United.