Manchester United began their Premier League campaign on a winning note at Old Trafford much to the relief of their manager Louis Van Gaal, as anything other than 3 points would not only have dampened the mood at the club but also spoiled the Dutchman’s 64th birthday party. It was a largely uninspiring, scrappy win against a potentially top 6 side on opening day that involved 5 debutants including a goalkeeper who’s had zero minutes of pre-season doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? The game must have surprised many in that the three absolutely key individual contributions to United taking home all 3 points came from an area everyone thinks United are struggling in at this point in time and quite understandably so.
Yes, Manchester United defended better than they attacked against Spurs – to everyone’s shock – but one player who stepped up to the plate when the side was craving for some no nonsense defending at the back was Chris Smalling and he was my man of the match against Spurs. As far as key statistics go, Smalling enjoyed a 75% tackle success and successfully made 3 out of 4 tackles and notably 2 of those coming well in and around the box where the margin for error is at its finest. The only successful tackle made by United on the day inside the penalty area did come from someone who the fans have nicknamed Maidstone Maldini, a crucial tackle on Nacer Chadli on the 84th minute showcasing what he could do when he was right in his comfort zone.
Besides tackles and dispossession, the England international also made 7 clearances (4 headed) and managed to put his body on the line at the right time blocking 2 shots; the second attempt 2 minutes from the 90-minute mark was really crucial, where he diverted a dangerous shot on target from Harry Kane, one of the pivotal moments of the match that ensured United held their nerve right till the final whistle. Numbers aside, there are things in football one cannot measure, or put a figure on. In a back five where Chris Smalling was the most experienced defender on paper, he had the added responsibility to organise and command his area ensuring nobody stepped out of the line or failed the defensive shape, a responsibility he seemed to have taken on his stride willingly, by the looks of it.
The most surprising aspect of everything with regard to Smalling is the fact that a strong defensive showing against a dangerous-on-their-day Tottenham side from the 25-year old could not have surprised that many really. After all, this is one of many assured games from the centre-half on a personal level since after that derby day misery last season at the Etihad when he got sent off quite stupidly. With Jones injured again and as a result sidelined for another 3 weeks and Rojo building his fitness to get up to speed, Van Gaal is literally left with a central defensive partnership of Smalling and Blind (Evans is likely to leave) meaning Smalling has to keep this up and continue to repay the faith of his manager who’s trusted him so much that the England international is now the third choice captain of the side, which is saying something in terms of how far he’s evolved in this Manchester United setup.
It’s crystal clear that if Manchester United are to improve one area in their side to make them look proper contenders for the title, it’s central defence. Chris Smalling more than anybody knows that he needs someone beside him to allow him to improve, a leader figure, an experienced head of sorts, to translate the potential that he has in theory, to more consistent performances on the pitch. Whether that leader arrives in this summer or not, it is up to Smalling now to stay injury-free and grab this opportunity where he would get to play every week in his favoured position with both hands (and feet) and make that position his own for the foreseeable future.