Jose Mourinho hasn’t shown the level of faith in Chris Smalling that many expected when he was appointed Manchester United manager two summers ago. A key figure under Louis van Gaal and an incredibly old-fashioned, physical centre-half, the England international looked set to be one of the first names on Mourinho’s team-sheet, but he’s only made 31 Premier League starts out of a possible 65 during the last 18 months.
Injuries have been a factor at times but even when fit, Mourinho has often preferred Phil Jones and Eric Bailly instead at the heart of defence. But the sideline bouts of competitors for United’s centre-back berths have seen Smalling re-emerge in recent months and his performance against Huddersfield in Saturday’s FA Cup clash was particularly impressive, producing an imperious display as the Red Devils claimed a clean sheet at the John Smith’s Stadium.
It was an unusual performance from United. Although they always appeared in relative control of a match decided by a routine scoreline considering the gulf between the two sides – tellingly, it was the same score as Huddersfield’s trip to Old Trafford earlier this month – the home outfit actually enjoyed greater possession and produced 14 more efforts at goal, leaving the visitors to do the majority of the defending as they focused their entire game-plan on the counter-attack.
And while Romelu Lukaku grabbed headlines for scoring two breakaway goals, justifying Mourinho’s approach to the Fifth Round encounter, it owed as much to Smalling’s input in helping United soak up pressure, luring Huddersfield onto them, before exploiting the space they left behind. Indeed, the 28-year-old won a whopping eight aerial duels and made 15 clearances – the highest returns of any player on the pitch on both fronts – while recording two tackles, two interceptions and two blocks.
It remains to be seen if Mourinho takes that mantra into Manchester United’s next game – a tricky trip to Sevilla in the Champions League on Wednesday night – but with Lukaku and Smalling proving so instrumental at either end of the pitch, it seems like the most logical strategy for a big test in Europe.
But when everybody is fully fit, does the 31-cap defender actually make United’s best centre-back partnership? Let us know by taking part in the poll below, giving the two centre-backs you’d pick week-in-week-out a thumbs up, and the three you wouldn’t a thumbs down…