Chris Smalling, considered one of the nations great young prospects, is expected to one day take over from the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdiannd at the heart of England’s defence, and line up alongside Phil Jones in United’s once the days of Rio and Vidic come to an end at Old Trafford. Smalling was brought in to United in 2010 after impressing on loan at Fulham, and we were led to believe the 21-year-old would cover for an suspensions or injury problems in the centre of United’s defence. Last season Smalling made 33 appearances in all competitions for United, and his performances on the field were believed to have put pressure on the Vidic and Ferdinand partnership that had gone relatively unchallenged for a number of years. It came as somewhat a surprise then to see Chris Smalling start the season at right back for both Manchester United and England, and some have suggested this could prove to be damaging to his development as a centre half.
Smalling won his first senior international cap last week in England’s Euro 2012 qualifier away at Bulgaria, after impressing Fabio Capello in United’s opening fixtures at right-back. The England boss claimed that he was “surprised” at how well Smalling had adapted to a new role at Old Trafford, and insisted the 21-year-old had “improved and improved” in United’s opening fixtures since the Community Shield back at the beginning of August. After the 3-0 win in Bulgaria, Smalling himself admitted that he was still learning the position but that he was happy to carry on as England’s right-back. Both Micah Richards and Glen Johnson were unavailable for England’s fixtures, and Smalling’s debut performance earned him a recall against Wales the following week, again on the right side of England’s defence.
Smalling’s rise to both the United starting eleven and the England national side has come incredibly quickly for the 21-year-old, who signed his first professional contract with Fulham in 2008. Until then, Smalling had played at Maidstone FC in the Isthmian League Divison One South. However, while at both Maidstone and Fulham, Smalling was always deployed in the centre of the defence, and it was his ability in this position that caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson while he was at Fulham. Smalling claimed that his aim for the season is “to play as many games as possible for United and to take it from there.” Following the departures of both John O’Shea and Wes Brown over the summer, Smalling was introduced to the right-back position in United’s pre-season games in what he believes to have been Ferguson’s way of “seeing who would fit in”.
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While the youngster insists he is playing “OK” at right-back, the United defender says that his aim is to play in the centre of defence, and “to be challenging Rio and Vidic for their places”, as that is where Smalling believes he is at his best. Although both Ferguson and Capello have insisted on playing Smalling at right-back, it seems unlikely that either will genuinely consider this to be his position in the long-term. With Rafael ruled out for 10 weeks back in August, and both Micah Richards and Glen Johnson also out for the time being, Smalling’s role on the right side of the defence can surely only be a temporary solution for both club and country. Anyone who would suggest that playing at right-back may harm, or be a detriment to Smalling’s development as a centre half is surely mistaken, considering the opportunities that lay ahead at both Manchester United and for England.
At just 21, Smalling has already made an impression on the Premier League and earned his place in the national side. Regardless of where the defender plays, the experience of regular first team football for both club and country is going to be beneficial to the players career altogether, and especially with a club such as Manchester United. Smalling himself sees his role at right-back as only a temporary fixture, however is keen to play “wherever needed” by either Ferguson and Capello. The defender is fully aware that both managers will know what is best for him, and if, for the time being, that means playing at right-back, then the 21-year-old appears more than happy to do so.
With the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, and Nemanja Vidic all entering the latter stage of their careers, it seems as though it will be only a matter of time before Smalling’s potential in the heart of the defence at both national and club level is realized by Ferguson and the next England manager. Until then, Smalling will be keen to make an impression wherever he is deployed, and so long as he is contributing to clean sheets with United, and putting in the kind of performances that have earned him a call up to the national side, then no harm or ‘detriment’ will be brought upon his development as a centre-back. Smalling should relish in playing regularly for club and country, and with a long career ahead of him should certainly not have concerns that his ability at centre-half has gone unnoticed – opportunities in the heart of United’s defence are bound to arise as the season progresses, and when they do, we can expect the 21-year-old to reaffirm his intentions to remain there.
Agree or disagree? Is playing at right-back a ‘detriment’ to Smalling’s progression as a centre-half? Let me know your thoughts either below or @sixthofficial on Twitter!