Does Chris Smalling have the ability to become one of the world’s most complete defenders?
In a month where one ex-non-league player has been hitting all the headlines, another has been slipping under the radar.
If someone had posed the question eight years ago that Chris Smalling, plying his trade for non-league Maidstone United in the seventh tier of English football, could become a vital part of one of the world’s most successful teams then they would have almost certainly been laughed at.
Even five years ago he started his Manchester United career by clumsily conceding a penalty on his debut against Celtic, so just how exactly has Smalling had such a meteoric rise in the past twelve months?
The statistics aren’t lying at the moment; Smalling has completely taken charge of the United back line this year, leading them to 14 clean sheets in 24 games across all competitions. Nine of these have come in the Premier League too, which is more than any other team.
On top of this, after the match against West Ham this weekend United have the best defensive record in the league, only leaking ten goals in their fifteen games, which included a ten-hour period without conceding in November.
Whilst the rest of the Manchester United defence has been changing more times than the weather lately the ex-Fulham defender has become a solid foundation for the side, and become almost undoubtedly one of the first names on the team sheet each week.
Smalling has played every minute of every game this season (other than 30 minutes against Ipswich) in comparison to his defensive partners; since Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury early in the year, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Matteo Darmian have all been experimented in the back four whilst both Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind have been drafted in by Louis van Gaal to try and fill some gaps.
LVG’s recent reliance on the resurgent Smalling was clear when he was made captain in Wayne Rooney’s absence for the recent Premier League match against Watford. This move suggests that LVG knows how valuable an asset Smalling is to his team, and shows that he’s starting to form a solid spine of the side through David de Gea, Smalling, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial.
Smalling fully justified LVG’s faith in him with a true captain’s performance at Vicarage Road, not giving Watford too many sights of goal and, when called upon, producing a fine late tackle in the six-yard-box to deny a goal-scoring opportunity. He also played a big role in the build up to United’s last gasp winner, forcing Heurelho Gomes into a flying stop which led to the corner that the goal came from.
Since his move to Manchester United back in the summer of 2010, there’s always been a small amount of speculation that he could be a future star, or that he could fill the sizable boots left by Rio Ferdinand in the United and England defence, but up until now he’s never really lived up to all of the promise.
If anything, both him and Phil Jones have been at the root of United’s defensive frailties in the past few years since Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra left, which makes his sudden rise even more incredulous.
He’s always seemed an untidy, clumsy player that’s lacking a bit of composure and a bit of defensive skill to compete with the best strikers in the league; players with the ability of Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez and so on. This was evident as recent as last November in the Manchester derby, where Smalling was sent off after two yellow cards in seven first half minutes.
Even Van Gaal, at the time, said: “The sending off isn’t one of those things, as a player you have to control your aggression. The second yellow card was stupid”.
Fast forward a year to another Manchester derby and Smalling was a different proposition; he barely gave City anything, limiting them to just the one shot on target. More impressive, however, was how he kept new boy Kevin de Bruyne quiet all game, who at the time was having an impressive run of form going into the game.
In almost identical fashion Smalling also kept in-form Romelu Lukaku out of the game completely at Goodison Park, spearheading United to victory on that day.
Yet Smalling’s been like this all season, quietly impressing under the radar, and his performances are arguably single-handedly making up for the lack of potency further up the field.
Would United still be challenging as high in the table if Smalling wasn’t performing like this? It’s a tough one, but the fact of the matter is that they probably wouldn’t be.
There’d also be doubts over their chances of qualifying from the Champions League group stages if he hadn’t had intervened and thrown his body on the line to stop a certain goal for CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford. If that had gone in, they’d have been 1-0 down and unlikely to turn the game around in the time left.
Instead, he once again saved United, who went up the other end and managed to snatch a win.
In a team heavily criticised in the media at the minute for their troubles in front of goal, Chris Smalling is one bright spark that stands out. For years there’s been question marks over United’s defence, and if anyone can ever replace Ferdinand and Vidic at the heart of it, and for years there haven’t been any answers.
Yet now, if Smalling continues in this vein of form, then the Maidstone United boy might just be the answer that United and Louis van Gaal have been searching for.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Paul.
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