Maguire. Bailly. Lindelof. Martinez? Where does each of

The best pre-season performances often come via players with the most to prove.

Manchester United were a pleasant surprise in their 4-0 victory over a Liverpool team of variable quality in Thailand on Tuesday.

Anthony Martial pressed, linked and attacked with a vigour not seen since the better parts of the 2020-21 season. Jadon Sancho shone brightly in a 45-minute appearance on the right. Zidane Iqbal was impressive in a cameo off the bench, frequently showing for the ball in central midfield before wriggling out of tight spaces with sensible passing and confident dribbling.

And then there was Eric Bailly, giving the sort of display that raises questions about where he belongs in United’s centre-back  hierarchy.

At time of writing, United have five centre-backs on the pre-season tour that has now moved on to Australia, with three further candidates back in England. And Lisandro Martinez likely to join the club from Ajax soon.

Many a pre-season brings an unforeseeable variable. Bailly’s impressive second half against Liverpool in Bangkok may have shaken up United’s central defensive pecking order.

Eric Bailly

United appearances: 113

United appearances in 2021-22: Seven (four in Premier League)

Where is he in United’s centre-back hierarchy? Ummm, fourth?

When this tour began, Bailly looked a centre-back likely to leave the club. The Ivorian is a curious player: physically dominant yet injury-prone, quick with his feet but sometimes slow to react, impressive going forward yet prone to clumsy moments.

Bailly’s physical strengths make him an obvious candidate to be the “dog-like” defender in a back four, doing the majority of the man-marking, tackling, heading and disrupting the opposition player in possession. But watch the 28-year-old for long enough, and he does display a somewhat raw “cat-like” sense of how to defend space.

His more idiosyncratic moments tend to arise when he is supposed to be marking the man, but suddenly understands the situation around him and sticks a leg out. There are games where it works, as evidenced by his multiple interceptions against Liverpool on Tuesday. There are games where it does not, and he makes an error defending an incoming cross.

United’s fourth goal in that Bangkok warm-up game is a good example of Bailly’s oscillating skill set, driving the ball forward (initiated with a cute stepover) before passing to Facundo Pellistri and then attacking the penalty area. Few centre-backs in the Premier League can pull off such a move with regularity, but consistency has been a major weakness for Bailly. He has been unavailable for 103 games throughout his six years at Old Trafford.

Bailly is also a quiet centre-back; his voice was rarely heard in the empty, near-silent stadiums during those behind-closed-door games of 2020-21, and outside of set-pieces and other breaks in play, he does not relay the directional calls or “Man on!” warnings that often prove vital to team-mates. As such, he is a sometimes skilled individual who has never had the proper run to prove himself a good team player for United.

Such is his erratic approach to defending that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted to play a half-fit Harry Maguire instead of Bailly in what turned out to be a 4-2 defeat away to Leicester in October 2021.

Under-new-ownership Newcastle were looking at Bailly as they began their post-takeover transformation during the last January transfer window, and promoted Fulham are thought to have displayed interest this summer.

But it appears new manager Erik ten Hag has plans for the player at United. 

“Eric Bailly’s performance doesn’t give me a headache,” Ten Hag said on Wednesday after the squad’s arrival in Australia. “I am happy. There are a lot of games this season, and also a World Cup. We need a full squad, with a lot of competition between the players. We have to push ourselves on to a higher level.”

United’s congested start to the coming season could be a lifeline to Bailly, who doesn’t have the distraction of the World Cup because Ivory Coast did not qualify and could serve as an energetic set of legs in games where Ten Hag may choose to rotate (ie, the six-match Europa League group stage wedged into the eight weeks between September 8 to November 3 and United’s Carabao Cup campaign). 

If Bailly can make his 45 minutes in Bangkok the rule rather than the exception to his form, he could play a role in Ten Hag’s defensive schemes. 

Harry Maguire

Total United appearances: 143

United appearances in 2021-22: 37 (30 in Premier League)

Where is he in United’s centre-back hierarchy? First

“Harry Maguire is the captain,” said Ten Hag before Tuesday’s victory over Liverpool.

Shorn of the defensive aura he created following (a remarkable) European Championship with runners-up England last summer, Maguire had a difficult 2021-22 season, becoming a figure of ridicule and hatred among the club’s fanbase. Ten Hag’s announcement that he will retain the captaincy means a few things:

  • If Maguire is club captain, he will probably start as many games as his fitness allows.
  • Maguire usually starts at left centre-back for United, where he uses his shoulder to protect the ball when dribbling and helping the team progress the ball.
  • When Maguire plays at right centre-back, he becomes more of a passer than a ball carrier. 

Any centre-back starting for United next season will have to play most of their games next to Maguire, and their skill set will have to complement the club captain. Maguire missed that pre-season opener against Liverpool in Thailand because of a knock, but will likely form the bedrock of Ten Hag’s defence next season. 

Raphael Varane

Total United appearances: 29

Appearances in 2021-22: 29 (22 in Premier League )

Where is he in the United centre-back hierarchy? Hmmm… Second?

If you tried to design the perfect centre-back partner for Maguire, you would come up with a player similar to Varane. Yet the 29-year-old had an underwhelming 2021-22 debut season at United, missing 17 games through injury.

There were parts of the season when Varane was injured and unable to make good on his early promise alongside his captain. Then there were parts of it where Varane was fit, but Maguire was not the player he had been in 2020-21. There were also parts when Maguire was unavailable, and Varane got asked to do things he was not adept at doing. 

The Frenchman is one of the most decorated and well-respected central defenders in European football after a decade with Real Madrid and playing every minute of his country’s 2018 World Cup triumph but strangely isn’t a guaranteed starter for the majority of United’s games next season.

His solid 45 minutes in Bangkok – where he often shot out of the back four to engage Liverpool’s attackers higher up the field – should be the start of Varane’s revival in a United shirt.

Victor Lindelof 

Total United appearances: 195

Appearances in 2021-22: 34 (28 in Premier League)

Where is he in the United centre-back hierarchy? Third, maybe?

Signed by Jose Mourinho before the 2017-18 season, Lindelof was intended to be the cat-like defender in the United side to balance Bailly’s dog-like hassling.

Lindelof is another curious United player, technically proficient but lacking the physicality and aerial dominance to make him stand out as one of the better defenders in the league.

His outstanding skill is his interpretation of space – Lindelof knows how to jockey and re-direct attackers into less dangerous areas, before making a well-timed tackle. His weakness materialises when an opponent bullies their way out of a well-timed Lindelof tackle, regardless of said good technique. The Swede is also fond of a long pass from right centre-back towards the left wing (something Marcus Rashford is a particular fan of).

Varane’s arrival last summer should have made Lindelof one of the best third-choice centre-backs in the Premier League. Instead, injury problems for the Frenchman, coupled with Maguire’s loss of form, meant he ended up being the most consistent figure in a defence that leaked goals. 

Lindelof played 45 minutes next to Varane in the heart of the defence against Liverpool on Tuesday – a partnership that started eight games last season. 

Axel Tuanzebe

Total United appearances: 37

Appearances in 2021-22: 11 for Aston Villa on loan (nine in Premier League), two on loan for Napoli 

Where is he in the United centre-back hierarchy? Sixth?

A strong performance in a 2-1 Champions League victory over Paris Saint Germain in October 2020 hinted at Tuanzebe’s promise, but injury issues and so-so substitute appearances (an issue for many a United defensive player under Solskjaer) meant the now 24-year-old has faded from the first-team picture.

At his best, Tuanzebe can be a dynamic and aggressive man-marking centre-back. Unfortunately, 2021-22 saw him manage only 13 appearances on loan at two clubs who saw little of that dynamism in those matches.

Tuanzebe’s United career is at something of a crossroads; he did not train in the pre-game open session at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok on Monday night and was absent from the squad for the following day’s match. He has not travelled on with the squad to Australia, with a club spokesperson saying he returned to Manchester on Wednesday morning to deal with a personal issue.

He is one of three centre-backs at the club who would benefit from more consistent playing time, but is unlikely to find it at the club this season.

Academy centre-back Will Fish – a 19-year-old who trained under Ten Hag at Carrington in the first week of pre-season – is set to fly out to Australia as cover.

Phil Jones

Total United appearances: 228

Appearances in 2021-22: Five (four in Premier League) 

Where is he in the United centre-back hierarchy? Fifth

For the second consecutive summer, Jones has stayed at Carrington to go through a specialist pre-season programme designed to ensure he is best prepared for the campaign ahead.

Last season was one of small victories and more disappointments for Jones; his 90-minute performance against Wolves in early January was his first senior team appearance for United in two years. He was of interest to Bordeaux (among other clubs) on loan in that month’s transfer window and is thought to have reacted with deep frustration to being substituted by Ralf Rangnick at half-time of the loss to Liverpool at Anfield in April. 

Still only 30 years old, Jones should be a man-marking defender who can progress the ball forward in a similar fashion to Maguire. However, long-term fitness issues and limited game time have made it hard to ascertain how good a centre-back he now is. 

The United futures of Jones, Bailly and Tuanzebe could all be recoloured by what happens with the final player on our list…

Lisandro Martinez

Total United appearances: Zero… for now

Appearances in 2021-22: 36 for Ajax (24 in the league)

Where is he in the United centre-back hierarchy? TBC… but it could be second

Here’s a very quick guide to Martinez:

  • United are close to completing a deal for the 24-year-old.
  • Martinez has made 118 appearances for Ajax since signing in the summer of 2019, ahead of Ten Hag’s second full season at the Amsterdam club.
  • Ninety of those appearances have come at centre-back, 22 in defensive midfield and the rest at left-back.
  • Ten Hag has not used Martinez in defensive midfield since his 2019-20 debut season. All of those 36 appearances he made in 2021-22 came at centre-back.
  • Naturally left-footed, Martinez spent last season as the left centre-back in the Ajax back four, partnering youngster Jurrien Timber.
  • Neither member of that partnership is over 6ft (183cm) tall.
  • Ajax conceded only 19 goals in the league last season anyway. 

If Martinez moves to Old Trafford this summer, the 5ft 9in (175cm) Argentina international is likely to be the starting left centre-back in Ten Hag’s system, with Magure shifting over to become a progressive passer, rather than the ball carrier United fans are used to.

It would be a bold move to reorganise a centre-back hierarchy that probably has one too many members already, but Ten Hag appears to be assembling a new spine for this squad, with an emphasis on technical quality and collective pressing. 

Rangnick’s starting line-up for the final league game of last season was:

If Martinez does become a United player in the next couple of weeks, and a few other things happen, they could line up for their 2022-23 season opener at home to Brighton on August 7 like this…

…and still have the following set-up for their first Europa League group game the following month:

United have many centre-backs with many different strengths. And Ten Hag will have many options for the season ahead.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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