The story of Chris Smalling at Manchester United in the last few years is an interesting one, rather unlike the man himself. The England International, with a foundation in non-league football has, in many ways, lived an average English footballer’s wet dream – to represent one of the biggest clubs in the continent at the highest level possible.
The 28-year old, for all his shortcomings throughout that journey, has reached the destination and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
But as his career began to flourish in and around 2014 under a certain authoritative Dutchman, his identity within the football club changed and as his name too did on the outside. By the time Smalling was called by an unfamiliar first name, the defender had progressed so much that he was one of the members of the squad name-checked by Van Gaal who were considered for captaincy, it did not matter to Mike. From plying his trade at Maidstone United, the 28-year old worked his way up to the point where he finally led Manchester United out of the tunnel in England and Europe.
But of late, it does feel like the experienced centre-half who is now 40 appearances shy of notching up a 200th for Manchester United, has hit an invisible brick wall. And it is to easy to understand why that may be the case.
Under Van Gaal, when United averaged close to 60% possession, Smalling flourished – as United had very little defending to do, per se. His ability on the ball has never been world class at any point but the inadequacies never hurt United significantly, thanks to his partner Daley Blind.
The versatile Dutchman was often tasked with bringing the ball out from the back and initiate attacks as Van Gaal found Smalling a role in the side that he was good at: sweeping up the mess. Naturally, in a largely dull two-year spell of the Dutchman, it was Smalling who ended up being the most consistent performer – because he was quite simply in his comfort zone for the majority of his time under Louis van Gaal. However, things have taken a different turn under the Portuguese.
Nothing embodies the change in style of football at Old Trafford – the steady but sure transition from an ultra-conservative Van Gaal approach to the moderately reactive version served up by Jose Mourinho, more than the inability of a one-dimensional footballer like Chris Smalling to adapt to the situation and evolve. Manchester United now have a wide spectrum of performances and results under their belt in the season so far already – from comprehensive wins by four goal margins to dull and mind-numbing defeats and everything in between.
Yet, with that said, the lack of dynamism is not to be used as a stick to beat Smalling with for struggling to be as complete as Manchester United under Mourinho need him to be, but a yardstick to judge how good he can be and whether that is good enough for this current outfit – that is beginning to rely on all 10 outfielders contributing to the attack as opposed to the usual suspects in the final third.
His most recent exclusion from the England line-up spurred quite a bit of debate with Smalling going on the offensive – by mentioning how he has been trusted by vastly more successful managers than Gareth Southgate, when in fact, that was the most defensive and borderline insecure response he could have possibly made. Chris Smalling said,
“I don’t really feel like I need to prove anything to Gareth. Like I said, I play for one of the most successful managers in Jose and he’s only going to pick the best players. While I’m playing regularly and he’s happy then I think, if my season carries on like this, we have a successful season and our team continues to concede very few goals, it will give him [Southgate] may be no choice in the summer but to pick me.”
Jose Mourinho is indeed happy at this point in time to back a senior member of the squad like Chris Smalling by rewarding him with more regular playing time in the short term, but if anything, the signing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof in successive transfer windows has so far given the clearest indication as to where the Portuguese wanted concrete and tangible improvement, should his side challenge the likes of Man City to recapture the league title, in the long term.
With Marcos Rojo back in the frame after a long layoff and Phil Jones – a Mourinho favourite, Chris Smalling will need to take criticism on his chin, apply himself and focus on improving his all-round game, to stay ahead in contention for a place in the starting line-up. He cannot be stalling anymore.