Chris Smalling has gone from zero to hero in less than a year at Manchester United having been the Premier League’s best defender this season, writes Ian Watson.
Louis van Gaal’s ruthless streak abruptly ended the Old Trafford careers of a number of United stars, like Robin van Persie, Rafael and Javier Hernandez to name just three. Others, though, who bought into the Dutchman’s precious philosophy have seen their prospects greatly enhanced. Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young both looked finished with the Red Devils, but the rejuvenation of Chris Smalling betters both.
The centre-half lines up against Manchester City on Sunday less than a year after a couple of brain farts and a red card against United’s derby rivals appeared to put his Old Trafford future in jeopardy. Twelve months on, Smalling has gone from ‘stupid’, in Van Gaal’s view, to future skipper.
Many United fans wanted Smalling gone last November after the 1-0 defeat at the Etihad. Fewer than eight first-half minutes separated two of the most brainless bookings you could wish to see – especially after Van Gaal spent the previous week warning his players to retain their discipline. After trying to block Joe Hart’s drop kick, Smalling then needlessly thundered into James Milner to leave United flailing with 10 men before half-time.
Van Gaal wasn’t impressed: “The second yellow card was stupid. You cannot do what he has done with the second yellow card. That is not very smart. What can I say?”
It seemed that may have been the final straw for Smalling. Four and a half years after joining from Fulham for £12million, the former Maidstone man’s progress appeared minimal. He lacked consistency in form and fitness, and despite having spent four years around Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, little of their magic appeared to be rubbing off on the young defender.
Instead, the Etihad errors proved to be the catalyst for for a quite stunning revival.
Smalling insisted the dismissal was “very out of character for me”, which it was. The versatile defender had collected only four bookings in 64 appearances up to that point. “I just have to move on,” he said, and he did immediately.
An injury crisis denied Van Gaal the opportunity to teach Smalling a lesson upon his return from a one-match ban and the centre-half began to make amends by playing a leading role in a back three alongside Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett at Arsenal. The 2-1 win over the Gunners was followed by five consecutive wins and an 10-match undefeated run.
In stark contrast to the stupidity he showed at the Etihad, Smalling displayed at the Emirates a maturity most doubted he had. It was perhaps apt that it came in front of Arsene Wenger, who has always remained a fan of the centre-back. The Arsenal manager lost out when Smalling opted to join United in 2010 and the Frenchman also wanted him in exchange for Thomas Vermaelen in 2014. Van Gaal said no, which turned out to be a masterstroke.
The United boss has made a leader out of the previously-passive Smalling, who has clearly embraced Van Gaal’s methods. The defender remarked last season: “The manager said at the start of the season that once you’ve been with him for six months and got used to the repetition of drills, the tactics and you know your role that we will get better.”
Practice has made Smalling almost-perfect this season. The 25-year-old formed a formidable partnership with Daley Blind until the Dutchman was made one of the scapegoats for the recent shambles at Arsenal, but the two dovetailed each other splendidly. Blind floated off the ball and sprang attacks on it, allowing Smalling to focus on what he enjoys.
Smalling’s appeitite to be a stopper is quite refereshing in today’s game where defending is seen by some as a dirty word. On his primary focus, he told manutd.com last year: “It’s just a case, first and foremost, to not let the attacker get a sniff. You must be tight and aggressive and give them the odd kick if you have to, and it is what I enjoy. The other side is getting to play out nice passes from the back and watch the team do well. But, ultimately, I must make sure we’re preventing goals and stopping strikers.”
Early in his United career, it was hard to tell exactly what Smalling’s main strengths were. He has always been a great athlete, with the requisite physical attributes for a top-class centre-back, but he appeared reluctant to impose himself upon forwards and his use of the ball still retains room for improvement. Even last season, United’s opponents used to stand off Smalling and encourage him to bring the ball out, knowing he could be dragged out of his comfort zone. While his passing is improving, the England defender still keeps it simple, prefering a 10-yard roll into the midfield, rather than break the lines with a Ferdinand-esque pass or dribble.
But as a stopper, there have been none better in the Premier League this season. He finally appears to have learned how to use his six-foot-four frame up against the top forwards and, crucially, where to position it when United’s goal is in peril. The fact he is the only United player to have played every minute in the Premier League this season highlights his new status at Old Trafford.
Understandably as he approaches his 26th birthday, Smalling is displaying a maturity on and off the pitch that he lacked prior to his derby aberration of a year ago. Fast forward another 12 months, and the 20-cap defender could be wearing the United armband on a more regular basis with a European Championships as a starting centre-back behind him.
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