By Adam Joseph
Not many of us saw this coming. Perhaps not even the most optimistic of Manchester United fans believed it would happen. It’s not a miracle by any means, but it’s one of the real surprises so far from the Louis Van Gaal era. That surprise I speak of, is the rise of Chris Smalling.
Once a much-maligned member of the Old Trafford squad, the Englishman has turned himself into a rock solid defender at the back for the Red Devils. He’s become the sort of defender that a few years ago we expected Phil Jones to become. Whilst his defensive partner’s development has stalled somewhat, Smalling has thrived under the guidance of his Dutch manager.
This time last year there were many questions around the former Fulham player’s future at the club, with Smalling struggling with ongoing injury troubles and an inability to find form when he did play. Whilst used as a right back as well as in the middle under Sir Alex Ferguson, Van Gaal decided he would be exclusively a central defender.
Like many during the early days under Van Gaal, Smalling suffered through inconsistent spells and was doing nothing to secure his place in the side long-term. With his contract winding down at the time it seemed only a matter of time until he departed the club.
Smalling didn’t help his cause against Manchester City at the Etihad last year, when he got himself sent off for two needless yellow cards. He was torn to shreds by fans and analysts for a careless red card that cost his team of winning the derby against their fierce rivals.
But what a difference a year has made for him. He’s arguably the form defender in the Premier League ever since, and would make a strong claim to be the best English centre back in football right now. Even the most optimistic fan couldn’t have predicted this.
Whilst his manager continues to search for the partner to pair with him full time, the rugged defender has been a rock at the back for the 20 times English Champions. At age 25, he is only just entering his best years of football. He’s signed his extension (now what seems like a bargain deal) and won’t be leaving the club anytime soon.
His maturation has been so impressive to watch, with ever developing skills as a leader growing to the point that it is not bizarre to see him wear the Captain’s armband in Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick’s absence. He seems more than worthy of it to the point that some are speaking of him as a potential future club Captain.
He provides calmness at the back that has been lacking for too long at the club, and a team in transition like United requires solidity at the back above all else. David De Gea has rarely had a solid defence in the past few seasons, but now Smalling provides the foundation of one.
With the increasing impressiveness of Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw to return to the side eventually, the team has the pieces in place for a defence that could line up for the next half decade if not longer. Who’d have thought that not too long ago?
Rarely beaten in the air nowadays, Smalling’s increasing strength is one of his best current assets. At the weekend he handled the threat of Romelu Lukaku with ease. Whilst on one occasion Phil Jones was easily beaten, Smalling won the ball back and recycled possession for United effortlessly.
Van Gaal would have been so pleased to see that and his faith in Smalling has been an important part of his development. The ball playing defender’s distribution and confidence on the ball continues to improve, and he is adding strings to his bow as he continues to impress.
His tackles (2.4 per game this season) interceptions (2.1) are both at an all time high, and his player WhoScored rating (7.40) has never been higher. In fact it had never been higher than 7 before last season.
Smalling is still human and mistakes will still be made, of course. Before the start of the season he’d never played 2000 minutes in a league campaign and since his red card against City he’s missed less than 100 from over a potential 2400. That says it all. It can no longer just be labeled a good run of form for the Englishman, it’s now simply the norm.
Adam Joseph is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia. Manchester United fan from back when they were the only team on Australian TV and it was love at first sight. Manchester United, Oklahoma City Thunder, New England Patriots and Carlton Blues fanatic. If it’s sport related, I’ll talk about it.
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