One of many key faults at Manchester United last season was their defence: caught between the old and the new with Vidic and Ferdinand too old to regularly produce their 2009-11 form, while their replacements in Smalling, Jones and Evans lacked the experience and bolstering confidence. However, in spite of early talk of a defensive crisis, in recent weeks they’ve improved, and with David de Gea probably the most in-form ‘keeper in the league right now, things look a little brighter defensively at Old Trafford.
Louis Van Gaal was keen to make changes to this Utd side, but murmurs were arising from before a ball was kicked this season about his side’s defensive qualities and how they’d cope without Ferdinand, Vidic or Evra. Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo were signed, but with a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 tipped for United two more had to step up. Smalling struggled initially, Rojo looked vulnerable to injuries and developing to a new league, while Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair looked too young.
The side’s defensive woes were summed up by a disastrous 5-3 loss to Leicester. Frustrated fans bemoaned “how can a side afford Falcao, van Persie, Rooney and Di Maria yet not a strong defence?” or in similar words. Some of the strongest criticism was reserved for one Chris Smalling.
In fact, Smalling had been considered a future defensive leader at Old Trafford from his arrival in 2010, with the Englishman enjoying an impressive first season. Much of it he spent alongside Nemanja Vidic, while at other times he filled in at right-back. He made a few errors and sometimes lacked the assurance to prevent top players like Drogba, Silva and Raul in his final days at Schalke, but Smalling looked wise beyond his years. So far this season though, he has stagnated and not really looked good enough to hold a defence on his own.
Yet in Smalling’s defence, probably against all Paddy Power football betting odds, I am of the belief he could grow into a solid centre-half alongside Marcos Rojo. Rojo is perhaps more agile and cutthroat than Smalling , but Smalling could help the Argentine adapt to the crosses and physicality of certain Premier League sides and with another centre-back like Evans, Blackett or McNair, there may be a way United can expel their defensive worries.
For all the derision their defence has had for their lack of star names, in their last few games or so including those away to Arsenal and Southampton, the Red Devils haven’t let in that many goals.
As spectacular as De Gea has been, this is impressive for a defence made up of inexperienced, youthful centre-backs learning a new system of playing three at the back. Smalling has looked far more intense and alert in these games, willing to put his body on the line for his team, best shown away to Arsenal.
These performances have shown me for one, that Smalling should not be disregarded and is worthy of a place in a side trying to regain its place at the top table of English and European football.
So what now for the Red Devils and what will van Gaal do with the defence? Rumours have been circulating for around 18 months now about Mats Hummels coming from Borussia Dortmund, but it has proven hard to differentiate the merely speculative from the realistic. Rumours have circulated of an Old Trafford exodus this January, but I think it would be unwise for them to sell Smalling as his ability on the ball and positioning makes him suitable for a trio of defenders as opposed to just two.
The return of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans to the defence as well as the confidence and maturity shown by new signing Marcos Rojo means Smalling will have to fight for his place, but with his confidence up, he may be on the verge of becoming the player he looked like becoming in 2011.