It has, at times, been a strange campaign for Chris Smalling. From the “stupid” pariah after dismissal at Manchester City back in November to United’s most accomplished defender in recent weeks. If anything Smalling’s past two months have been his finest in four and a half seasons at United – with a new contract the reward and a future, once in doubt, seemingly assured.
Yet, with United almost certain to bring defensive reinforcements to the club this summer, Smalling is far from guaranteed a starting spot when the new campaign begins in August. The hard truth for the 25-year-old is that just as Smalling has finally established himself at the club, his place in Louis van Gaal’s first team is almost certain to come under pressure.
Smalling arrived at United an accomplished natural defender and superb athlete, but a young player far from proven at the highest level. After all, the London-born defender had played just 13 Premier League games for Fulham before joining United for around £10 million in January 2010. Smalling had appeared for Maidstone in the Isthmian League just two seasons previously in the kind of ‘rags-to-riches’ story that Bébé didn’t quite turn into a fairytale.
Initially the rapid ascent to United’s peak appeared to unsettle the youngster; mistakes followed in a six month loan spell back at Fulham from January to summer 2010. So poor was the player that Fulham manager Roy Hodgson was moved to joke that Smalling was “getting all his mistakes out-of-the-way” before he officially joined United on 1 July that year. Then came an uncertain summer tour to the United States, with one writer on this website cruelly dubbing the new recruit “Appalling Smalling.”
That Sir Alex Ferguson was moved to defend the player after he conceded a penalty in United’s 3-1 pre-season defeat to Celtic was evidence to some of the Scot’s folly in paying so much for a defender with so little experience. One prominent writer – later to become a disgraced communications director at Liverpool – was moved to declare Smalling “poor” and claim that his England Under-21 central defensive partner Phil Jones, then at Blackburn Rovers, was “twice the player.”
Yet, by the following summer Rant praised Smalling for his “outstanding in his début campaign,” which included 33 games for Ferguson’s first team across all competitions.
It has not always been an upward trajectory in the intervening years. The player made just 14 Premier League starts in the following campaign and just 10 the year after. Three years into his United career Smalling was no closer to a permanent spot in the first team than he had been on first signing for the club.
Nor, it seemed, was a role in central defence always certain when a chance came along: both Ferguson and successor David Moyes frequently used the player at right-back, where Smalling’s athleticism shines, but his poor distribution is equally conspicuous. Under Moyes Smalling started more than 20 games in the Premier League, more often at right-back than in any other position, where the Scot’s direct tactics drew little positive contribution from the player’s limited attacking talents.
Injury, as much as consistency of performance, has done much to undermine the player’s progress at United. Smalling missed more than three months after breaking a metatarsal in July 2012, while hamstring, groin, head, ankle, pelvis and muscle injuries have seemingly ensured inconsistent availability to the three managers under which he has appeared. It is a pattern continued this season, with Smalling missing games in August, September, December, January and March through injury or illness.
If that is a story of caution, then Smalling’s performances in United’s recent positive run, including starts against Sunderland, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City, is a narrative of greater hope. The player, now restored to his natural position in the centre of defence, has retained those naturally sound defensive instincts, while improving on a previous weaknesses in distribution and positioning. A new maturity has emerged that suggests a more consistent role over the four years of his new contract.
Smalling is far from the complete defender of course, although an 88 per cent pass completion rate this season points to a player who has cut out the worst traits in distribution. The 25-year-old has also contributed an average of more than two interceptions and six clearances per game this season. He has won all but four tackles attempted over the course of the campaign and scored four crucial goals, including – to much delight – a goal in the recent 4-2 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford. It was a modicum of atonement for the red card in the reverse fixture.
Given the bumpy ride over the past five seasons it was little wonder Smalling declared himself “delighted” with the new contract and “proud” to be part of a “complete unit” now developing under manager Van Gaal. Smalling has proven to be a big part of that development.
“Chris has improved and developed immensely during the short time that I have been at the club and has become an integral part of the first-team squad,” said the Dutchman. “He always conducts himself in a very professional manner and it is also pleasing that he has scored some important goals this season too. I am delighted he has signed a new contract.”
Yet, it will surprise few if Van Gaal brings in a high-quality central defender in the summer, with Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels now likely to leave the German club in the wake of Jurgen Klopp’s imminent departure. Hummels, like Smalling, has an unhappy injury history, but offers genuine class in an area where Van Gaal has infrequently found a consistent formula over the past eight months.
United reportedly opened the bidding this week with a strategy of forcing through the transfer of a player many regard among the finest in his position in Europe. Hummel’s defensive instincts, outstanding positioning and superb distribution will add much to United’s first team should the club conclude a deal in excess of £30 million this summer. Crucially, after years of resistance, Hummels is also open to the move.
“Some days I think I would definitely like to move abroad,” Hummels told magazine Kicker recently. “Moving abroad would be good for my professional and personal well-being. Eventually, I’d like to leave the Bundesliga. I have had many conversations with the leaders of Dortmund, where I know I am a big part of the team, but I am yet to make a decision about my future.”
And yet a deal for the German, or another high-class central defender, will leave Smalling, along with Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans, fighting for a single spot in Van Gaal’s team. Even if Evans’ leaves the club, as many suspect the Northern Irish defender could do this summer, three into one simply does not go. That is to say little for youngsters Patrick McNair and Tyler Blackett, who may need to leave the club on loan next season.
Still, Smalling’s recent performances have put the Londoner at the forefront of Van Gaal’s thinking, although both Rojo and Jones have also impressed at times this season. None of three has broken 25 games for the campaign. It is one of the principal reasons Van Gaal is likely to invest in central defence, despite his team having conceded just 31 goals this season; the second best defensive record in the league.
For the moment United travel to Everton this weekend – one more game in the search for the 10 points over the next five games that will guarantee Champions League football next season. It is a measure of the player’s progress that Smalling is almost certain to start at Goodison Park.