Despite having his season severely interrupted by a succession of injuries last season, Chris Smalling still managed to make 31 appearances for Manchester United and establish himself as a firm favourite of Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson- who admitted he’d have been in the squad were it not for the unexpectedly severe injury he picked up against Swansea.
A tall, athletic defender, Chris Smalling is a 22 year old centre back with a bright future ahead of him. Originally catching the eye with his superb (but unlucky) debut against Chelsea for Fulham, Smalling secured a £10 million move to United, ahead of Arsenal, and has often been described by the lazy journalist as the next ‘Rio Ferdinand’ due to aesthetic similarities.
Whereas Rio’s reading of the game remains unparalleled with a calmness rarely seen on a football pitch, Smalling prefers to use more controlled aggression to compensate for his ‘poorer’ (everything is relative) reading of the game and inferior distribution. In fact, despite sharing Rio’s all round athleticism, Smalling’s bigger builder means he has greater physical potential than his senior team-mate and could see him develop a scary mix of Rio and Vidic’s qualities.
However, to do this, Smalling will need game time. This means he will have to try and avoid injury after picking up ankle, toe, groin and head injuries last term. If he manages to do so then he is likely to get over 30 games next term as he rotates between centre back and right back; as Rafael is still unlikley to play more than 60% of the games, Evans may be called in to play left back if Evra picks up an injury and Rio is likely to be rested for the big matches. To add to that, Roy Hodgson has hinted he’ll be in his thoughts in the World Cup qualifiers- possibly as third choice behind Cahill and Lescott.
Aerial Duels %
Domestically, Evans and Ferdinand were the dominant partnership last season and performed their roles very effectively. Therefore, Smalling will have to work hard if he is to break up their partnership (even if we forget about Vidic’s return). Defensively, Jonny Evans made more clearances than both Rio and Smalling but it is his place which is most likely up for grabs next season due to his low tackle success rate and worrying aerial duel success rate (although this may have been skewed by the fact he generally took the bigger man to help save Rio’s back). In fairness, Evans’ distrubtion last season was wonderful and probably makes him our best ball playing central defender nowadays but he is also an inferior goal threat to the Englishman. Either way, it is unlikely Rio Ferdinand will play so much again next season.
I chose to ignore Smalling’s pass success rate mainly because it is highly misleading. Smalling played a much larger percentage of his passes in the final third with much less space and was always going to be less efficient due to risk/ reward nature of attacking football. Certainly, he is much more uncomfortable in these positions than Rafael but this is only to be expected. As it is, he makes a fine Premier League full back despite it not being his natural position.
If Nemanja Vidic returns to anywhere near his finest form next season then Smalling’s time at centre half will immediately be reduced but in the future a partnership between him and Evans, very similar players, may be the way forward. Historically, managers generally want two players with contrasting qualities. Vidic and Ferdinand, the best duo in the world in the late 2000s, demonstrated this perfectly but an Evans and Smalling combination is a more modern pairing. Together, they prefer to win the ball before having to make a tackle and would allow United to play a higher line (something Vidic doesn’t) as they attempt to implement a more fluid, attacking style of football. However, the Serb currently more than compensates for the deep defensive line that he implements.
At the moment, Chris probably needs to improve his concentration slightly even though his athleticism generally gets him out of trouble. To add to that, if he were able to improve his first touch and get his head up just that little bit quicker, he would be much more comfortable on the ball, like both Gary Cahill and Jolean Lescott are.
Ahead of him in the England ranks, the Manchester City and Chelsea centre backs are both a few years his senior and show it on the pitch. Cahill is more effective offensively and Lescott is more effective defensively. If he wants to make his way into the England team in time for Brazil 2014 then he is probably going to have to raise his performance levels by at least 10% and nail down a place at the heart of our defence (at least third choice).
Aerial Duels %
Other than that, Smalling should look forward to what will hopefully be a fine season if he manages to get a good pre season under his belt in the next few weeks- after all, he had more than his fair share of injuries last season!
Comments are welcomed below and on Twitter. Statistics were provided with permission by Fantasy Football Scout.