They say it’s often revealing moments, rather than form or development, that decides the fates of footballers at Europe’s top clubs. Perhaps an inappropriate comment at the Christmas party, perhaps some unwarranted backchat on the training pitch, perhaps a split-second of lapsed attitude that costs the club a vital three points, creating a portal into mentality and soul.
So one can only imagine what thoughts raced though Louis van Gaal and Ryan Giggs’ minds whilst they refused in tandem to throw even the slightest of glances at Chris Smalling’s way on Sunday afternoon, as he walked towards the Etihad’s tunnel, having seen red for two bookings after just 38 minutes against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City.
Maybe they were wondering if Manchester United should’ve accepted Arsenal’s swap deal for Thomas Vermaelen in the summer. Maybe they were wondering how much those two foolish bookings – the first, the result of blocking a Joe Hart goal kick, the second, an unwarranted, hasty challenge on the edge of the penalty area – might affect the defender’s price-tag in January.
Maybe they were wondering when the real Chris Smalling, the one that had developed such an unquenchable appetite in Sir Alex Ferguson four years ago, would actually turn up at Old Trafford. Maybe they were wondering how long they could keep on waiting.
When Sir Alex Ferguson signed a 20 year-old Smalling in summer 2010 and a teenage Phil Jones twelve months later, the tacit implications of the former Manchester United manager’s recruitment strategy were obvious – a future centre-back pairing not only for the 13-time Premier League champions, but also the England national team.
Indeed, Ferguson saw so much potential in Smalling, despite only having made a handful of Premier League appearances for Fulham at the time, that he travelled all the way to London to instigate a dramatic intervention in Tottenham’s car park, after an FA Cup replay with the Cottagers, convincing the defender not to sign for Arsenal. Apparently, Ferguson refused to let Smalling leave until he’d agreed to join United.
Needless to say, Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the 24 year-old – or for that matter, the manner in which he’s been fast-tracked to the Premier League summit and the forefront of the England national team – is yet to be truly justified.
Yesterday’s act of world-class stupidity was only the tip of the ice-berg, further amplified by the fact it was amid probably the most important fixture in Manchester United’s season from the fans’ perspective.
A chaotic mind in a local derby – an emotional rush of blood to the head – can be excused, but Smalling’s performances have been open to scrutiny for some time. He’s often looked out of his depth in the Champions League particularly; a worrying sign at a club that’s been involved in almost every season of the tournament since it’s incarnation in 1992.
Not that the 24 year-old doesn’t possess appealing qualities. Measuring in at 6 foot 4, strong and quick, he’s an exceptional athlete, and at Fulham demonstrated his competency with the nuts and bolts of the defensive trade – tackles, headers, clearances, positioning. Simplistic but effective.
Likewise, overshadowed by Nemanja Vidic, Johnny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, he’s often had to settle for the right-back slot at Old Trafford. It’s not a position that plays to his natural strengths by any means and in fact exposes his many weaknesses, namely a lack of quality and composure on the ball compared to modern full-backs.
Yet, that is the crux of the complaint surrounding Smalling; he’s failed to develop the aesthetic, ball-playing side of his game, which is now a must for top European defenders, and neither Ferguson nor David Moyes saw enough to warrant the 24 year-old overtaking United’s more experienced centre-half options permanently.
And, as we witnessed on Sunday afternoon, a lack of concentration and calmness in major fixtures is still letting the defender down. He continually panics when under pressure – the red card against City was just the latest, and arguably most extreme, instance.
With Evans injured and Ferdinand and Vidic moving on during the summer, this should be Smalling’s season. Although a horrifying injury and suspension list, in combination with United’s failure to recruit a much-needed world-class centre-back during the summer, hardly creates the most accommodating situation, this is undoubtedly the defender’s greatest chance yet to prove he can be an important player for the Old Trafford side.
This should be the season where we witness the real Chris Smalling – the one that made Sir Alex Ferguson drive all the way to London to have it out in the White Hart Lane car park four years ago.
Barring an exceptional revival in form however- so unprecedented performance levels far exceed anything we’ve witnessed from Smalling since 2010 – the England defender’s season looks set to be remembered by just one game; his 38 minutes of amateurish madness against Manchester City where he registered no tackles, no blocks, two fouls, two yellow cards and one red card.
Perhaps this is the real Chris Smalling – perhaps Ferguson was hoodwinked all along. Manchester United have already waited four years for their former manager’s faith in the defender to prove fruitful. It can’t be long now before their patience expires.