Several months ago a group of United fans discussing the team’s defence would have gone something like this: “Blind’s a liability, we need Shaw back and God knows where we’d be without Smalling.”
Fast forward to more recent times and the same set of fans having a chat about the Reds’ defence would more likely resemble the following: “Blind’s been outstanding of late, Fosu-Mensah and Borthwick-Jackson look the real deal, Smalling’s looked dodgy for far too long now.”
The former Fulham man has gone from essential, to erratic to egregious in the space of half a season and although there’s still more good performances than bad it’s worrying how easily Smalling seems to switch off. Take the two recent Wembley appearances as an example, in the FA Cup semi final Smalling’s own goal was dismissed by many as ‘unlucky’ but it was all too avoidable. Using your right foot to clear a ball that’s fallen on to your left is asking for trouble and a player with the ability and experience to be skippering England should know better. The FA Cup final made the semi look like a defensive masterclass as Smalling’s red card was matched only in it’s idiocy by how costly it could have been. Both the defender and United were very lucky Palace failed to capitalise on his decision to try and rugby tackle Yannick Bolasie’s leg before realising what sport he was actually playing and pulling his arms away – far too late to avoid punishment.
It’s not just the Wembley shambles which have raised serious doubts about Smalling’s reliability, even the meaningless final league game of the season, one etched in folklore as the only match in history to be postponed due to an error in counting fake bombs- highlighted the defenders failings. The last minute own goal may have been irrelevant to almost everyone bar David De Dea who missed out on the Golden Glove title Louis van Gaal was so vociferous about, but it did show us yet again Smalling’s ability to switch off with alarming ease. It’s a trait Jonny Evans perfected before he departed, creating danger when there’s none to speak of and although Smalling’s not quite plumbed the depths of inadequacy Evans reached in his final few months at the club, he’s on course in emulating them should he continue on his current trajectory.
This may all seem a tad harsh, after all Smalling is still one of the best defenders in the Premier League, has been part of defensive line up that’s had a commendable record this season and was a contender in the eyes of many for the team’s player of the season. But in a campaign that’s seen United only deliver in glimpses, one where the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and the perennial epitome of excellence David De Gea have been among the only ones who’ve truly shone, a player who’s been at the club for six years now should be among its most consistent performers. At 26 Smalling isn’t that far off his physical and professional peak and with the likes of CBJ and TFM coming through the ranks, its not too much to suggest the England man should be leading by example and being a form of role model on the pitch. Smalling’s still a great defender when he’s at the top of his game, it’s just he shows the heights of his capabilities less often than he used to and there’s a danger the new manager may not be willing to show patience.
For the first time in his career Jose Mourinho enters a new job with question marks hanging over him having overseen a title defence at Chelsea that even David Moyes could take the p*ss out of. The media, hardly Mourinho and United’s staunchest fans will be collectively praying the Special One’s reign is a disaster. You can imagine the column inches every dropped point or poor performance by the Reds will take up as journalists who’ve reveled in both the manager and his new club’s recent travails ejaculate themselves over anything resembling a shortcoming. Time and patience isn’t on Jose’s side – despite what we’d all like to think. The term transition has been used and abused so much by his predecessor that the worst Mourinho can afford to achieve in his maiden season at Old Trafford is a top four finish, even that may be deemed a failure if it wasn’t achieved via some form of title challenge. Throughout his career the two-time Champions League winner has built sides based on a solid defence, with world class centre back partnerships. Whether it’s Terry and Carvalho, Samuel and Lucio or Ramos and Pepe, Mourinho’s teams have always relied on a solid duo at the back capable of ensuring the excellent defensive records he’s famous for. Based on recent performances, there’s every chance the new United boss could look at Blind and Smalling and feel the former is the more reliable of the two. Rumour has that the Reds are about to embark on a Summer spending spree of Kardashian-like proportions which is almost certain to see at least one defender joining the club. Should Mourinho bring in a centre back- John Stones is reportedly on the Spesh One’s radar- then it may well be Smalling who finds himself surplus to requirements.
It wasn’t that long ago that United fans could be heard declaring “Evans and Jones will be the long term replacements for Vidic and Rio one day.” Now, that seems like a distant memory, let’s hope the times we thought Smalling was destined for greatness, don’t one day too.