It was telling that even after a morale-boosting victory over Swansea City last weekend, José Mourinho still felt compelled to address what he believes to be the biggest problem at Manchester United. The Portuguese alluded to what he believes are “some cultural issues, influenced by a situation that has been going on for a few years,” before controversially singling out some members of his squad. Simply put, Mourinho feels that some players aren’t giving him enough.
Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan: six players, almost £100 million in transfer fees, and one big falling out. For differing reasons each of the sextet could be headed out of the club, caught in José Mourinho’s demand for total commitment. Once again the Portuguese has demonstrated a single-minded drive to do things his way, one that will cost the club millions in depreciating player values. It had better be worth it.
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.
Chris Smalling’s international début in England’s 3-0 win over Bulgaria in marked another step in the rapid rise of the 21-year-old defender, who has progressed from semi-pro to confident international in three years. And Greenwich-born Smalling, who once turned out for Maidstone United in non-league, has won international honours despite switching to right-back this season at Sir Alex Ferguson’s behest. It’s a switch that Smalling has taken in his stride, if not to his heart.
International honours are a long way from the jitters the defender suffered in the second half of a final campaign with Fulham after agreeing to join United, when the proposed move north seemingly affected the player’s form. Then 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 2010.
But the 6’ 5” giant also began United’s US tour in summer 2010 States in similar fashion, prompting one writer, with tongue firmly in cheek, to dub the player “Appalling Smalling.” Another prominent Sports Illustrated hack was moved to declare Smalling “poor,” and claim England Under-21 central defensive partner Phil Jones “twice the player.”
No longer so, with the £12 million signing improving with each outing and visibly growing in confidence over the course of last season. More than a year on and Smalling’s confident performances at right-back this season have not only cemented the youngster’s place in Ferguson’s side but demonstrated a flexibility that few realised the player possessed. The 21-year-old’s start in Sofia is likely to be followed by an appearance against Wales at Wembley next Tuesday.
Given Jones’ rise, it may be Irishman Jonny Evans that suffers most from the English duo’s progression. By contrast to the pair’s confident start at Old Trafford, Evans’ woeful form last season placed the Irishman’s future under the microscope. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted by physical opponents, Evans performances suffered for low confidence and an increasing positional uncertainty. Positive early season performances this season have done much to repair the damage but question marks remain.
Neither lack of confidence nor intimidation phases Smalling though, whose physical presence, humble nature, and calm maturity will serve him well under the intense Old Trafford spotlight. Yet it is as a central defender that Smalling hopes to achieve club and international glory, despite the positive performances from the right this season. Few will doubt the player’s ability to do so.
“I played a few games at right-back in pre-season, but so did Phil Jones because we had lost players like Wes Brown and John O’Shea,” said Smalling.
“To play for United and now England in a position I’m not used to has been difficult. I have never played there before so it’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ll play wherever I’m needed. I can do a job at right-back but I see it as a temporary thing.
“If Sir Alex tells me to play full-back then I’ll try my best to do the job, but I think I am a centre-half. I want to be challenging Rio [Ferdinand] and [Nemanja] Vidic for their place because that’s where I feel I’m at my best. That’s where I have always played. I hope that in the future I’ll get to play there for club and country.”
The youngster faces competition for his place both at Old Trafford and with Fabio Capello’s side, whatever the position. Injuries to Rafael da Silva, together with the departure of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, opened the door at right-back but the Brazilian youngster will return to fitness from a shoulder injury this autumn. Together with his brother, Fabio, Rafael will stake a claim to United’s right-back berth in the coming weeks. Indeed, Rafael has now played more than 70 games for United, while Fabio started the Champions League final at Wembley in May.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is likely to restore fit-again Rio Ferdinand in central defence after the international break, while Vidic will return to the side before the end of September.
On the international scene Smalling faces competition from both Glen Johnson – the incumbent – and Manchester City’s Micah Richards for a spot at right-back. Ferdinand, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescot and Jones may be ahead of Smalling in Capello’s pecking-order in the centre of England’s back-four.
“He missed two balls, but it is different when you step up to the national team,” Capello said of Smalling’s début in Bulgaria last week.
“When you play with your club you know everything, the movement of your fellow defenders and midfielders, and where to position yourself. When you are new to international football it is not quite the same and the ability of opponents is always high because they are the best players in their country. But I thought the time was right for Smalling and now he understands more what is required.”
In that there is much to laud, with Smalling’s confident performance on the pitch translating into positive media exposure this week. The former Fulham defender may be new to the international scene but he is, it is already clear, a fast learner.
A version of this article appeared in United Rant Monthly, Issue 2, September 2011 – download here.
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is facing up to the autumn of his career, with three young central defenders ready to challenge the 32-year-old for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But, says Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and new signing Phil Jones will have to prove they are hungrier than the Peckham-born defender to do so.
Indeed, with fitness issues a concern for Ferdinand over the past three seasons there are no guarantees that the England defender will finish the coming campaign as Ferguson’s first choice to partner Nemanja Vidic. The former Leeds United player will surely begin the campaign alongside club captain Vidic, but with Smalling outstanding in his début campaign, £16 million Jones desperate to play and Evans with plenty to prove, competition for defensive places is strong than ever at Old Trafford.
Yet Ferdinand has a warning for United’s younger defenders, challenging Smalling, Jones and Evans to show the kind of desire that has taken the Londoner to the top of the world game.
“I remember what I was like when I was young,” Ferdinand told reporters on United’s US tour.
“I remember looking up at Slaven Bilic, Marc Rieper, Alvin Martin and Steve Potts at West Ham. I was only a kid but I used to sit on the bench and think I should be playing. I am sure these guys think the same thing. If they have got anything about them they should.
“They are all talented footballers and, I believe, Manchester United players. At some point I am sure they will take over the reins. But I am competitive and I don’t want to be giving up my position to anybody. My task is to prove I am hungrier than them.
“They can’t be in awe of me. If they are, they will get shipped out. That is the way it is. Your desire has to be to play. I understand and respect that. That is why they are here.”
The club’s concern with Ferdinand – the reason the 32-year-old is not club captain – is, of course, the defender’s ongoing fitness problems. After all, Ferdinand has not started 30 Premier League games for United in three years, with ongoing back problems having threatened to curtail the player’s career. Indeed, a feeling that United was prepared to sell enticed Tottenham Hotspur to bid for the defender last summer.
Yet Ferdinand claims that the back problem, which ruined most of the player’s 2009/10 campaign, is no longer an issue, although a calf injury robbed United of the defender for a large part of last season.
“My fitness is OK. I am nowhere near where I want to be yet but we have three weeks left,” added Ferdinand.
“Last season, I had no problems with my back, which was a good thing, but I did pull my calf which kept me out for a chunk of the year. Hopefully this time around I won’t have anything like that and I can continue to play a consistent amount of games.”
Despite ongoing concerns Ferdinand will remain key to United’s chances of success on the domestic and European fronts in the coming season. With inexperienced back-up in central positions and the da Silva brothers barely out of their teens, Ferdinand’s maturity means the former West Ham United player is likely to be rotated only for those games where Ferguson typically does so; against mid- to-lower table opposition.
But Ferguson will also be concerned that Smalling, who played 33 games for United last season, Evans and Jones all play enough football. The United manager’s revelation this week that Jones sought assurances on the subject before joining in June is telling. The £16 million former Blackburn Rovers player started 26 Premier League games for the Lancashire club last season, seven more than Ferdinand for United.
The United manager will use pre-season as a barometer for both Jones’ talent and the youngster’s ability to handle the pressure of being a United player. After all, Smalling’s excellent début season was predicated not solely on strong performances but 21-year-old’s ability to remain cool under pressure. Jones’ apparent maturity well beyond his years will surely serve the 19-year-old well.
“Over the years this club has been very successful. In the last couple of years we have won trophies as well. It is great to see but it does bring pressure,” adds Ferdinand.
“It is not overwhelming though. It is part of being a Manchester United player. You have to deal with all that stuff. It separates you from being a Manchester United player and not.”
Entering his 10th season as a United player Ferdinand has more than met that challenge. Smalling, meanwhile, has offered a promising start to his United career just as Evans’ future becomes a matter for debate. Jones’ biggest tests are yet to come.
Should Ferdinand once again show signs of age the trio will be more than willing to step into the elder-statesman’s boots.
Whatever the travails of Jonny Evans this season – it has been the worst campaign of the Irishman’s short career – the greatest stumbling block to the 22-year-old’s progress might be close to home. Indeed, Chris Smalling drew praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, declaring the player as the “club’s future” following an assured display against Stoke City last night.
Smalling’s performance was another confident step by the 20-year-old former Fulham defender in a career that has progressed rapidly from the player’s days in non-league football at Maidstone United. And while the defender has started just eight games this season, mostly in Europe and the Carling Cup, he has looked increasingly at home among more illustrious company.
“Chris Smalling was excellent,” said Ferguson today. “At 20 years of age he is doing very well. I am pleased with his improvement. He is certainly the future of the club.”
It’s a long way from the jitters Smalling suffered in the second half of last season with Fulham, when the proposed move north seemingly affected the players form. Then 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.
However, the 6′ 5″ giant began pre-season in the United States in similar fashion, prompting one writer on this website to dub, with tongue firmly in cheek, the player ‘Appalling Smalling’.
That Ferguson was moved to defend the player after Smalling conceded a penalty in United’s 3-1 pre-season defeat to Celtic was evidence to some of the Scot’s folly in paying £10 million for the player.
Ridiculously, one prominent writer moved to declare Smalling “poor”, and claim England Under-21 central defensive partner, Blackburn Rovers youngster, Phil Jones as “twice the player”.
No longer so, with the £10 million signing improving with each outing and visibly growing in confidence. Ferguson’s praise is empty perhaps but the promise of a player who has plenty of pace, a strong touch and potentially outstanding passing skills is strong.
Moreover, the London-born defender sports a humble down-to-earth nature that will serve him well under the intense Old Trafford spotlight.
“It is nice to hear some positive words from the manager,” said the England Under-21 international.
“At the start of the season I got to play every other week but I haven’t had a game for the last few weeks. Hopefully I can make my presence felt and get many more.
“For the time being, it is all about concentration and consistency.
“That will improve the more I play. I know Vida and Rio are the first choices, I just have to make sure I do equally well when I come in, so I know I am playing my part.”
By contrast Evans would probably commit murder for a decent performance in a United shirt. He might even settle for just a partially incompetent one, such has been the defender’s utterly woeful form this season. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted by physical opponents, Evans has suffered the worst season in his time with United.
All is not lost but for now Evans might even benefit from a loan spell away from Old Trafford. After all, he is unlikely to feature much for Ferguson’s outfit in the coming months bar an unforeseen defensive injury crisis. It’s unlikely to happen with Ferguson not boasting enough central defenders – with Wes Brown out-of-favour and John O’Shea injured – to feel comfortable with a reserve departing.
Yet, the Irishman’s problems are not insurmountable. Physically the 22-year-old is bullied at times, with opponents quickly clocking the intimidation that Evans tends to wilt under. Mentally, low confidence has shown in an increasing positional uncertainty.
Neither lack of confidence or intimidation phases Smalling now, whose physical presence alongside Nemanja Vidic last night did much to negate Kenwyne Jones’ influence. Indeed, it was the United captain who strayed from his position to allow Stoke’s headed equaliser shortly after half-time.
And yet the decision on Ferdinand’s succession is not that far away. The 32-year-old England captain has seemingly shed the injury problems that plagued him for more than 18 months but age is no friend. Vidic too will pass 30 before the year is out.
Of course Paolo Maldini played at the very highest level into his 40s. Ferdinand’s composure might enable the Dagenham-born player to match his erstwhile hero. The player’s back might not.
In the meantime Smalling appears both willing and able to step into the beach.
Manchester United officially unveiled summer signings Javier Hernández, Bébé and Chris Smalling at an Old Trafford press conference today, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson claiming that nobody in the market is better than now available in his squad. The trio, signed for around £25 million atage 20-22, represent the club’s future said Ferguson.
Ferguson, who is effectively under orders from senior management to invest in youth and not established players who have no resale value, said that bringing players to the club from a young age creates loyalty.
“We’ve seen with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, and later O’Shea, Fletcher and Wes Brown that young players develop and have a good loyalty towards you, they appreciate the education you give them as coaches,” argues Ferguson.
Those of a more cynical nature might argue that Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer to Real Madrid provides the true template for United’s current transfer policy.
Perhaps more controversially Ferguson, who has repeatedly declared that there is no value in the transfer market on the day German midfielder Mesut Özil signed for Real Madrid in a £12.4 million deal, said that nobody that he had seen could offer a “quantum leap” improvement in United’s side this season.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández
Of those players already brought to the club, 22-year-old Chicharito has already become a fans’ favourite after bright performances in pre-season games against an MLS All Star XI, former club Chivas Guadalajara, the Airtricity League XI and Chelsea in the Community Shield. The striker signed for around £7 million, which United announced in April. He has scored 10 goals in 17 internationals for Mexico.
“It’s like a dream. I am living the dream that I’ve had since I was 10 years old,” said Chicharito, who said his home début for the club was wonderful.
“I’ve always seen these players like Scholes and I want to be like them. I want to grow as a human and a player and the most important thing is I want to win championships.”
Tiago Manuel “Bébé” Dias Correi
Meanwhile, surprise signing Bébé, aged 20, joins from Vitória de for €9 million – £7.4 million – after United’s former assistant manager Carlos Quieroz recommended the winger-cum-forward. The player is yet to play at any level above the Portuguese third division, although Guimarães claims that Real Madrid was also among four clubs bidding for the winger who was available on a free transfer less than two months ago.
Indeed, Ferguson admitted that he is yet to see anything of Bébé, having signed a player before watching him play, even on video, for the first time in 24 years as United’s manager. “Sometimes you have to go on instinct,” and the judgement of United’s scouting department, Ferguson said.
Bébé’s rise to the top of world football took the football world by surprise in the past week but it’s an opportunity that the player intends to capitalise on.
“I feel very good. It’s an opportunity that has been given to me and I must grab it,” said the winger, now sporting short hair after Ferguson apparently ordered the player to remove the locks he wore just last week.
“The strong Portuguese links here were a big thing for me. Ronaldo played here and he became a great player. Also, Nani and Anderson are here and I want to be like them and work hard to become a good player.”
Chris “Appalling” Smalling
United announced a £10 million deal, rising to £12 million, for former-Fulham central defender Smalling, 20, in January. The 6’5″ defender has the raw talent, with pre-season games demonstrating his pace, passing ability and physique. However, the inexperienced defender’s form has dipped markedly since United announced the move last winter, although England Under-21s selected the player last week.
“They gave me my chance and a lot of support,” said Smalling of his time at Fulham who discovered the giant defender playing non-league football less than three years ago.
The relative value of each signing is, of course, dependant on their success or failure at the club but there are no guarantees. After all, younger players such as Giuseppe Rossi, Gerrard Piqué and Diego Forlan failed to make the grade at United before establishing themselves elsewhere.
Indeed, it is tempting to ponder exactly what value Ferguson is really looking for?
Özil, his compatriot Sami Khedira and the brilliant Dutchman Wes Sneijder each cost their clubs about the same fee as Smalling will eventually draw from United’s coffers. UEFA Club Player of the Year shortlisted Diego Milito was available on a free transfer last summer.
Manchester United has successfully tied up a deal Fulham’s 20-year-old central defender Chris Smalling. The confirmed £8 million deal comes as United headed off interest in the player from Arsenal. It is a remarkable rise to the top for the player who joined Fulham in June 2008 from non-league Maidstone United.
“Manchester United has agreed terms for the transfer of Chris Smalling from Fulham,” said a statement on ManUtd.com.
“Chris has agreed personal terms with the club and will join for the beginning of the 2010/2011 campaign. He will remain at Fulham until the end of the current season.”
Sir Alex Ferguson has moved for the Greenwhich-born defender following a reported bid by Arsenal this week. Smalling, who started Fulham’s match against Chelsea this season, has made just nine appearances in the Premier League. But the player’s accelerated development is such that Stuart Pearce called the defender into his England under-21 set-up. Smalling made his under-21 début against Holland as a substitute in August.
The pacy left-sided central defender will offer cover in an area of the pitch that United has struggled to field fit players this season. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Jonny Evans have all been injured at various times this campaign. However, the deal is likely to increase speculation that Vidic will leave Old Trafford this summer.
United has likely concluded a heavily performance-based deal in the current financial climate, with any cash up-front coming from the club’s new revolving £75 million credit facility.
“I know he spoke to Manchester United yesterday and we all knew they were interested,” Smallings mother, Theresa, told ThisIsKent.
“It’s difficult to take in that he will now be playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“It’s absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t have been surprised had he gone to Arsenal, because I knew of their interest, but United? How far has he come in such a short space of time.”
Talks with the player’s representatives concluded Tuesday afternoon. Smalling will join United for the start of the 2010/11 season.