Like every player who has ever worn a United shirt, there are things that Chris Smalling does well and there are things he doesn’t do well.
Both criticism and praise has been showered upon him in equal measure. However, the recent online frenzy created by a section of fans asking the club to sack him, has been distasteful. His loan move to Roma, too, in my opinion, is saddening.
For a defender playing his heart out for his club, the criticism for bad defensive performances by his team, fell unfairly on his shoulders. Before I move on to explain why Smalling should remain at United, lets look at how defenders have become easy targets for criticism and rarely get their due for good defensive display. It is easy to forget a defender’s solid performance.
Take the case of Jonny Evans’ last season (2018-2019) with Leicester, where he played every minute of every premier league game Leicester played. Jonny Evans was sold by Manchester United in 2015. Leicester City is his second club since then. Jonny Evans was the defensive mainstay for Leicester last season when they conceded fewer goals than Manchester United. Leicester was also the only team that was able to stop Manchester City from scoring in the opening hour of a premier league game at Etihad stadium last season.
Essentially, looking at the season that went by, Jonny Evans, was statistically and in all other aspects a better defender than Lindelof, Jones, Rojo and Eric Bailly. (with only Lindelof playing more matches than Jonny Evans) Did his performance catch your eye last season? I guess not.
Most criticism Chris Smalling has received, is in respect of his ability to spray the ball forward while on the ball. However, what does not get talked enough are his athletic abilities when United don’t have the ball. For instance he is able to out run most of the forwards in the premier league or atleast catch up with them if they get past him. His ability to win aerial duels is better than all the defenders United have had in the recent past. At this point it would appear that I am giving undue credit to the defender. But its not just me, the last three good managers United have had (not including Moyes here), Alex Ferguson, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have all found Chris Smalling to be good enough to start in their teams. How has Chris Smalling repaid this faith you would ask? Not everyone needs to be a ball playing defender, he is the ‘last man defender’ your defense requires so that the counter attack can be slowed down, till the team can recover from their advanse position. He is the guy you have seen jump over countless strikers who are prolific in the air and clear the ball for you. Does Lindelof inspire the same confidence in an aerial duel? Not after his latest mistake against Crystal Palace, he shouldn’t.
Chris Smalling has won 66% of his aerial duels this season, the 5th highest rate in the league.
It is not a coincidence that when United were struggling in the premier league as the same time Chris Smalling was battling with injuries. In the 2016-2017 season when Smalling (Manchester United’s Players’ Player of the Year for the previous season) was injured, United’s season was in shambles. Chirs Smalling’s contribution to the team will always be special because he’s not had a consistent defensive partner next to him and has had to adjust to the kind of player that was played next to him. From Tyler Blackett to Daley Blind, from Phil Jones to Lindelof, he has played with them all.
Darren Fletcher was let go in 2015, perhaps because the management felt he was not playing at the highest level or was not part of the mangers’ plan. In any case Fletcher was in phenomenal match form as he went on to play atleast 90+ games consecutively in the premier league, which is an impressive stat when compared to the matches United midfielders were able to play without getting injured or suffering a knock in that season. Darren Fletcher was deservedly made captain by Tony Pulis in his West Brom squad when he moved from Stoke. The tragedy of Manchester United in recent years has been what appears as recklessness with which players have been hired, fired and given contracts but that is another story for another time.
One can only speculate if letting Darren Fletcher or Chris Smalling (loan) go are sound managerial decisions. However, one thing can be said with certainty. One may understandably not include players like Chris Smalling in their first team, however for someone who have given so much to the club, the criticism has been unfair.
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