The idea is that while Bailly is superb, he is just one defender and the Red Devils really need two. Chris Smalling has qualities but these qualities make him a less impressive version of Bailly, so he’s not suited as a defensive partner. Daley Blind is a good makeshift defender but his reflexes and instincts can be exposed by elite attacking talent.
This leaves Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones. Two inconsistent injury-prone defenders. As it turns out they have formed a good partnership themselves, but it’s a precarious situation resting on their fitness (Rojo left the field against Reading injured) and their unique chemistry with each other. When Bailly returns, breaking up the partnership would mean losing that quality they have as a duo and lack as individuals.
So, Manchester United still need a centre-back. Someone to partner Eric Bailly (while perhaps Jones and Rojo can pair up in the lesser games) and, in the short-term, help solidify the United defence into a unit of which José Mourinho can be proud while Bailly is away at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
Luckily for the Red Devils, they’ve been linked with three good options: Benfica’s Victor Lindelof, and Southampton pair José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk. But which is best suited for Old Trafford? Squawka investigates!
Virgil van Dijk
Pros: Premier League proven, incredible quality in all areas
Van Dijk is a sublime footballer and would grace the majority of defences across the world. His skill-set is so broad, covering everything from dominating opponents in the air to playing the ball across the ground to score goals from set-pieces (he has 3 goals in his last seven games). He is equally adept at stepping up into midfield and dropping back to form a deep block. In short, he can do everything.
Virgil Van Dijk is a dominant defensive force.
At United, he would fit in perfectly next to Eric Bailly. The Dutchman is a steady presence at the back, and would compliment Bailly’s aggressive style nicely. The major drawback is cost, with Southampton demanding a £45 million transfer fee. There is no doubt Van Dijk would jump at the chance, but that’s a lot of money for a January deal.
Pros: Quality ball-player, sturdy defender
Cons: Cost, unproven in Premier League
Benfica’s Swedish stopper came out of the blue to be linked with United a month or so ago, but when you look at all the factors in the deal, you can see why. Lindelöf is a solid stopper who is so good on the ball that he can play at right-back as well as in the middle. At Euro 2016 two of the three games he started were on the right of defence.
For United this versatility could be useful, as the club’s only back-up for Antonio Valencia is Matteo Darmian. A right-back who, quizzically, has looked better for United when playing left-back.
Victor Lindelöf is a superb ball-playing centre-back.
Moreover he would be a great starter for United’s attacks. Despite the reputation, Mourinho needs centre-backs comfortable on the ball as his sides dominate the majority of matches.
The major stumbling block here is cost, as Lindelöf’s reported buyout clause would set United back a whopping £38 million. For a player with no Premier League experience and little top-class European experience, that’s an enormous amount of money.
Pros: Premier League proven, good leadership and organisation
The veteran defender José Fonte has been with Southampton since they were a League One side. He has risen with them up the divisions, not playing a Premier League game until he was 28 years-old. But you wouldn’t know it as he has been the rock at the heart of Saints’ defence alongside two different partners under three different managers.
José Fonte is not as dominant as Virgil Van Dijk, but his leadership is an intangible quality United need.
He is Southampton captain, and this leadership is not just evident at St. Mary’s, but for his national side Portugal too. At Euro 2016 Portugal finished 3rd in their group, conceding 4 goals in 4 games against international featherweights Hungary, Iceland and Austria. They looked like cannon fodder.
Then José Fonte was drafted into defence, replacing Ricardo Carvalho. The Portuguese conceded just one goal in four matches as they ground their way to a historic first-ever European Championships victory. Fonte’s leadership next to the dynamic Pepe solidified the defence, which is what he could do for United. The only downside is age, as he just turned 33. This would be a short-term solution.
Verdict: José Fonte
For many reasons, Fonte is the logical choice for United this January. The first of those is cost. With an asking price of £15-20 million, the Portuguese would be half as expensive as the two alternatives. And if United succeed in selling Morgan Schneiderlin for £22 million then the defender could effectively cost the Red Devils “nothing” as his fee would be offset by the Frenchman’s.
Then there’s the fact that he’s submitted a transfer request. This cannot be overlooked as it is a clear sign that he is willing to force his exit from St. Mary’s in the January window. While Van Dijk and Lindelöf may be open to a move, Fonte is desperate for one.
Moreover, he comes Premier League ready – nothing about the league will take him by surprise. His partnership with the dynamic and daring Pepe is a blueprint for what United would seek to achieve by pairing him with the dynamic and daring Eric Bailly. Fonte would be the steady presence that allows his partner to wreak havoc on opposing attackers all game long.
Yes, this would be a short-term measure. But it would help solidify United right now and provide their defenders with an experienced mentor. It would also leave the door open for the Red Devils to spend big in the summer, pursuing a more long-term and world-class defensive option like José Giménez, a player Mourinho is understood to have earmarked as a summer target.
The monstrous Uruguayan defender won’t move in January, but if United could sign him to partner Bailly they would have two of the best young defenders in the world anchoring their defence for the better part of a decade. Fonte is the steady signing that allows them to wait for Giménez and pursue him in a state of calm, rather than panic.