It’s Sunday, November 2, 2014. Eastlands. The Manchester derby. Chris Smalling is walking off the field after being dismissed for two first-half yellows. It’s the only red card in his Manchester United career, and one that his manager condemns later as ‘stupid’. United would lose 1-0, and in a season where much was required from United’s young centre back, things were not going well.
Fast forward just over a year. Chris Smalling has put in another stunning, most would say world-class performance against West Bromwich. He shows pace, power, positioning and a solid read of the game. He is lauded by many as the club’s player of the season to this point. He has played every minute of every game – twenty in all – even captaining the side in Wayne Rooney’s absence against PSV in the Champions League.
What is going on here?
The summer of 2014 saw the departure of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Many [myself included] felt that a defender or two would have to be signed in order to make up for the loss of quality and experience. The remaining centre-halves – Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans – were not known for their ability to stay healthy nor for their ability to get in the first eleven on a consistent basis.
Van Gaal bought defenders Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and utility man Daley Blind. Smalling played 29 out of a possible 44 matches, was sidelined with injury twice and served the suspension for his red card.
However, the signs began to show toward the end of last season. Smalling notched appearances in the last 7 matches of the campaign and got his just desserts by scoring against City in the 4-2 victory in April’s derby rematch at Old Trafford.
After almost a year under the demanding and well-drilled Van Gaal, it was as though the penny suddenly dropped.
Fast forward to this season and Smalling is one of the first names on the team sheet. Sure, De Gea and Rooney probably go on before him and Giggs has to scratch out ‘Mike’ and write in ‘Chris’ – but Smalling is now dependable and depended on.
He’s played as part of eight different back fours, seen four different left backs, three right backs and two keepers. He’s forged a decent [although at times unorthodox] partnership with Daley Blind and save for a few fire drills has shown himself to be the man in command of the back line.
But at this point it looks like the Dutchman’s relentless work on positioning – not to mention some good man management – has done Chris Smalling the world of good.
As the player approaches his 26th birthday, he’ll be feeling great about his prospects for both United and his summer with England at Euro 2016. He’s worked hard, matured and has earned some plaudits from football folk who recognize a player on the rise.
Let’s hope for more of the same as the season unfolds, and remember that many feel that centre backs don’t really start to mature and hit their peak until their late twenties!