492 minutes and counting: Man Utd answer defensive poser with unlikely Plan B
The Red Devils may have spent big on Victor Lindelof, but it is Phil Jones and Eric Bailly setting the standard in the midst of an impressive sequence.
Jose Mourinho has shown himself to be more than a little tactically astute down the years – you do not piece together the CV he boasts without knowing a thing or two about what you are doing.
Sometimes, though, even the best bosses in the business can be forced into a corner and end up stumbling across a solution which they may not previously have considered.
In Manchester United’s case, their summer transfer business suggested that they would be lining up with a new-look defensive unit in 2017-18.
Before the window had even officially opened the Red Devils had put a £40 million deal in place for Victor Lindelof – making him the most expensive defender in the club’s illustrious history .
Logic at that stage dictated that the 23-year-old would be drafted immediately into the fold, with such excessive fees rarely shelled out on squad players.
Pre-season struggles, though, left Mourinho facing something of a quandary – persevere with Lindelof and throw him in at the Premier League deep end or hold him back and give the highly-rated centre-half more time in which to fully adjust to new surroundings.
In the end, the Portuguese favoured the latter of those two options, with the decision taken to open the new campaign with those already fully versed in the demands of English top-flight competition.
This, as mentioned previously, is unlikely to have been the grand plan laid out back in June.
United have, however, rolled with the punches and arguably found themselves in a stronger position for having had to tinker and adopt a different approach to that originally intended.
With Lindelof kept out of the firing line, much like Henrikh Mkhitaryan was upon his arrival from Borussia Dortmund in 2016 , Mourinho has put his faith in Eric Bailly and Phil Jones as his go-to centre-half partnership.
He has been rewarded with a faultless opening to 2017-18, with United collecting nine points, 10 goals and three clean sheets from their three fixtures to date.
Ably supported by Antonio Valencia, Daley Blind and David de Gea, Bailly and Jones have helped to make the Red Devils watertight, with their Spanish goalkeeper forced into just five saves in 270 minutes of Premier League competition.
United, it would appear, have found an answer to a long-standing poser – and have done almost by accident.
Bailly and Jones have certainly done enough during the first month of the season to have earned the right to retain their places after the international break – providing they stay healthy.
That has been a problem for Jones in recent times, and Mourinho recently revealed that the 25-year-old is not 100 per cent fit at present – while talking up his potential to be “everything” he wants from a defender .
The United boss said: “For years and years and years he was injury prone and he has a problem now. He’s complaining about an ankle problem, so he’s the kind of player where we need to have him always in our hands with a lot of care from the medical department, from the fitness coach, from my assistants, in the gym working always on prevention, on recovering. If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he is everything I like in a central defender.”
It is easy to see why Mourinho is hoping to keep Jones clear of the treatment table, as his efforts so far this term place him among the most in-form performers in the English top-flight – with his passing figures particularly impressive as part of a side which is now looking to play its way to success.
A man with 22 international caps to his name has bettered Bailly across the board in a number of important departments – and by some distance – with confidence clearly having returned to a performer who has seen his value to the collective cause questioned at times.
That belief is now benefitting United, with an understanding in a vital area of the field only set to improve with the more minutes said partnership get in competitive action.
Jones and Bailly may not have been what Mourinho expected to go with, but they have now gone 492 minutes without conceding a goal when on the field together – a run stretching back to a meeting with Tottenham at White Hart Lane on May 14.
Clean sheets have been collected against Southampton and Crystal Palace from last season to add to this campaign’s tally to make it five in succession (Bailly was banned and Jones benched for the Europa League final while both were suspended for the UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid).
Lindelof, then, can only watch and admire for now, with it up to him to ensure that when his time does come, Mourinho is reminded that Plan A can be as profitable for United as Plan B.