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 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.
Smalling under Van Gaal’s reign
But, as his career began to flourish in and around 2014—under a certain authoritative Dutchman—Smalling’s identity within the football club changed. His name, too, changed 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. The fact that Van Gaal got his name wrong did not matter to “Mike”. From playing 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, since then, it seems as though 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 not too difficult to reveal 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.
Stalling under Mourinho’s reign
However, things have taken a different turn under the Portuguese manager.
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—alongside the inability of a one-dimensional footballer like Chris Smalling meant that he was unable 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, as 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] maybe no choice in the summer but to pick me.”
Smalling can’t afford to stall for much longer
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 wants concrete and tangible improvement, should his side challenge the likes of Man City in recapturing 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 in contention for a place in the starting line-up. He cannot be stalling anymore.