The head coach of Manchester United has ever been as merciless with squad numbers as Erik ten Hag. | soccer4u
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The head coach of Manchester United has ever been as merciless with squad numbers as Erik ten Hag.

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Eric Bailly is now a Man United player without a squad number but he is not the first player to suffer such ignominy.

“I’m not a number, I’m a free man,” exclaimed Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner. Eric Bailly is the man without a number for Manchester United.

The decision to strip Bailly of his shirt number was one of the most brutal acts Erik ten Hag has ever committed at United. Some fans may have missed Bailly’s absence from United’s provisional squad list released on Thursday, as Bailly last played for United in December 2021.

Even Jose Mourinho did not have the courage to refuse the shirt number of such a high-profile player. James Wilson lost ’19’ in 2016, a month before being loaned out to Derby. He never played for United again.

Tyler Blackett, another academy graduate, was refused a shirt number by Mourinho before being quickly sold to Reading.

Most mischievously, Mourinho has rearranged Marcos Rojo, formerly No 5, down to No 16 amid his hunger for a centre-back. The number ‘5’ was finally filled the following year by Harry Maguire, with Mourinho long since sacked.

The most ruthless was Louis van Gaal in his manipulation of Victor Valdes. Valdes publicly questioned Van Gaal’s training methods during a training session, was stripped of his number 32 shirt and transferred.

“He didn’t follow my philosophy. There’s no place for someone like that,” Van Gaal said, referring to the scary word ‘ph’. “There’s no place for a player. The philosophy is how you play and how you maintain the tempo of the game. For example, last year he refused to play in our second team.

“That’s one aspect of our philosophy, but there are many other aspects to the way you play as a goalkeeper for Manchester United. When you’re not willing to follow the tenets of that philosophy, there’s only one way and that’s the way out.”

Now Bailly has suffered the same humiliation. During his seven years at United, Bailly went from being a cult figure to being a comedic and humorous figure. The Ivory Coast international is the only player to change his agent after signing a new contract.

Bailly averaged less than 20 appearances in six seasons with the United first team. In Shanghai in 2019, he ruptured his cruciate ligament before the lineman raised the flag.

His extension in April 2021 was so unconvincing that less than a month later, Bailly mentioned the possibility of leaving if not scored in the Europa League final. The always soft Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chose Bailly against Villarreal in Gdansk.

United’s website still lists Bailly in third place, despite Ten Hag’s best efforts to polish him. Bailly, 29, is attracting interest from Saudi Arabia and Türkiye and is expected to leave.

The transfer window closes in three weeks today and there will be more United leaving than joining. Removing Bailly, Maguire, Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek from the books would be a good thing and give up Solskjaer’s tenure even further. Three of them were his signature, and he confusingly accepted Bailly’s improved deal.

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