Manchester United’s deal to sign Chris Smalling came rather out of the blue. In the winter transfer window in January 2010 the club announced that a deal had been agreed to sign the Londoner from Fulham and that he would join the following summer. The fee was undisclosed, but was later revealed to be in the region of £10-12m. It was rumoured that Arsene Wenger had also wanted to acquire the centre back, but few fans actually knew who he was. 18 months previously Smalling had been playing non-league football for Maidstone United and had only made his Fulham debut a month before the deal was announced. As transfers go this one was pretty random, but this was a time when United, ailing under the weight of the colossal debt imposed on it by the Glazer family, were forced to focus on cheaper, less mainstream talent. Javier Hernandez would also sign that summer for what proved to be an absolute bargain £5m.
When United fans finally got a glimpse of their new defender in a red shirt impressions were mixed. They still had Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as their comparatives and so Smalling had big shoes to fill. In pre-season 2010 the player looked every inch the rough diamond he was, capable of the basics of defending and with decent positioning, on the ball there was little refinement to his play. His instinct when a football landed at his feet was to launch it as far away from his own goal as possible, not a terrible tactic at lower levels, but little use for a team who cherished the ball. Sir Alex clearly agreed that a period of adjustment was required and Smalling did not make his full Premier League debut until the following January. His manager was, however, obviously content with what he had seen and in July 2011 United offered the player a new five year deal.
Given the potential within Smalling it is difficult to know if, at 27, he has delivered on his early promise. For a time during his early development Fergie used him at right back, a curious choice for a player who was as averse to a ball at his feet. Perhaps the intention was to provide him with a safe place to hone his on-the-ball skills, or maybe full back provided a safer location to evolve and perfect the art of defending. Regardless, when the player reverted to a centre back role the fans were never entirely convinced, either by his confidence with the ball at his feet or with his concentration. There appeared to be a potential rick in him every game.
Smalling won two Premier League titles under Sir Alex, but never cemented a centre back position as his own. Having made his senior England debut in 2011, the same could be said at international level, even at a time when the defensive quality available to the national team manager has never been as thin. Now 27, his 29 caps reflect the lack of trust he has gained from successive coaches. However, after David Moyes’ brief stay at United, Smalling at last appeared to be evolving into the player many always thought he could be. In Louis Van Gaal’s second season at Old Trafford his struggling team nevertheless had a fine defensive record and Smalling, finally first choice, was considered to be at the heart of that excellence. However, critics argued that the miserly goals against stats were more a product of an ultra-conservative formation and cautious tactics.
With United toiling at home and in the Champions League those theories were put to the test as the club travelled to Wolfsburg for a must win UCL group game. The shackles would have to come off. Despite taking an early lead through Anthony Martial, Van Gaal’s team collapsed under the weight of injuries and abject individual performances. Smalling, in particular, had a torrid evening, losing his man for one goal and being given the runaround all night, as United exited the competition. Domestically points on the board were also needed and conservatism could no longer rule (although even then the football was tedious and prosaic), and without a two man midfield shield Smalling’s inadequacies were further exposed. He was, and is, a good Premier League defender, short of the concentration required to excel at the top of the game and still deeply uncomfortable on the ball.
Regardless, Smalling began the reign of Jose Mourinho in a strong position. The Portuguese bought Ivorian Eric Bailly from Villarreal, but with Phil Jones desperately injury prone and the erratic Marcos Rojo as competition, he appeared to be the obvious choice to start alongside the new man. Mourinho even suggested in pre-season that he did not know if Bailly was ready to play Premier League football, further strengthening Smalling’s grip on a first team slot. Indeed, he started the season alongside the new boy, as United struggled to find consistency. In October he started in United’s disastrous 4-0 defeat at Chelsea, before drawing the ire of his manager for withdrawing himself from contention to play in subsequent games, citing an injury. Mourinho, also without Bailly, was forced to partner Rojo and and the recently recovered Jones, who excelled, and the Portuguese pointedly praised the bravery and fortitude of the stand-ins, who he described as players he could ‘trust’. This was perceived to be a barb aimed squarely at Smalling and Luke Shaw, who had also made himself unavailable through injury.
In Smalling’s absence Rojo and Jones excelled and it was only injury that has allowed the Greenwich-born player back into the fold. However, from inhabiting the box seat in August, he now finds himself on a very sticky wicket indeed. Although United have embarked on a run of only one defeat in 26 games, with Smalling back in the side they have looked jittery and porous defensively. Whilst Bailly is yet to regain his pre-injury and AFCON form, his partner is displaying all of his familiar failings, losing concentration and struggling with distribution and general ball skills. Those issues were once more laid bare in the League Cup Final against Southampton at Wembley, as Manoel Gabbiadini led him a merry dance. It has been widely reported that Mourinho is intent on acquiring a centre back to partner Bailly in the summer transfer window and with Jones’ mature performances when fit and Rojo’s versatility there has to be a question as to whether Smalling will survive a post-season cull.
For the first time Chris Smalling’s future at United appears to be genuinely at risk. At 27 he should now be approaching maturity, but his game is still riddled with the weaknesses he displayed as a relative Premier League newcomer when he first joined the club. He has improved, no doubt, but not far enough. He is protected, to a degree, by his nationality, with Mourinho wary of domestic and continental rules about ‘home-grown’ players, and for that reason there should be a market for his services if he was deemed surplus to requirements. There are also questions surrounding Phil Jones’s ability to remain fit medium term, but the manager clearly admires the younger man as a player and a competitor, while Marcos Rojo has demonstrated his ability to cover at centre back and his left foot makes him a desirable rarity. The Argentine also appears to have no concerns with fulfilling a squad role. The emerging talent of Axel Tuanzebe would also fill another squad birth. But with Smalling now entering his late twenties it is questionable whether he would be satisfied with the role of odd-job man, or whether Mourinho would wish to retain him in that capacity. Regardless, he appears to be the most vulnerable with a new centre back incoming in the summer. Smalling is now playing for his United future, but given the sloppiness of his recent performances and inherent weaknesses it may be a battle he is losing. As Jones and Rojo discovered, football fortunes can swiftly change, but United’s number 12 will need to improve enormously to win over a clearly sceptical manager.