Sir Alex Ferguson was once so determined to prevent Chris Smalling signing for Arsenal that he travelled all the way down to London, staked out the then-Fulham youngster in the White Hart Lane carpark after an FA Cup replay with Tottenham and essentially abducted him until the towering centre-back agreed to join Manchester United instead.
He clearly saw invaluable promise in a prospect that had just made the gigantic step up from non-league football with Maidstone United. And even more tellingly of how highly Ferguson rated Smalling when he eventually moved to Old Trafford in January 2010, United forked out a £10million fee for a 20-year-old who had made just 13 Premier League appearances.
“Arsenal had agreed to sign Smalling from Fulham and Smalling had agreed to go to Arsenal. Then Sir Alex stepped in. He came down to the Tottenham v Fulham FA Cup replay and, in the car park, it was agreed that Smalling would first talk to Sir Alex. He was in no mood to let Smalling out of his sights until he had agreed to go to United, and that is what happened.”
Indeed, Ferguson viewed Smalling as a rough diamond, someone who could be shaped into a top-class defensive talent. Nearly eight years and 257 appearances for United later though, and the England international’s greatest achievement at Old Trafford remains the two season he spent as vice-captain under Louis van Gaal – widely remembered as amongst the most laborious campaigns in recent Red Devils history. If Smalling was signed as the rightful successor to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, he’s fallen significantly short of that target.
Now aged 28, celebrating his birthday today, the greatest challenge facing Smalling is that he lacks relevance in a rapidly-changing era of Premier League football. The sudden embrace of 3-4-3 since the start of last season is no coincidence; it’s a reaction to how vastly improved on the ball modern, high-pressing centre-backs have become, alongside wide defenders who perform with almost the same dynamism and verve of traditional wingers.
Quality in possession has never been Smalling’s strong point, in fact, it’s his most fundamental weakness, and the change in taste is slowly leaving him behind. Nowhere is that more evident than in the England national team; John Stones and Harry Maguire have emerged as key components of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup plans because they can play out of the back and step into midfield. Smalling doesn’t offer that same vision and guile.
At club level, perhaps it’s less of an issue for Smalling at this moment in time. Jose Mourinho still prefers traditional and physical centre-halves, a description Smalling falls neatly into. But even then, the former Fulham man finds himself behind Phil Jones and Eric Bailly in the pecking order – only injuries or congested fixtures earn him a place in United’s starting XI these days – and when compared to the regular centre-backs from the rest of the big six clubs last season, there’s a gigantic difference in contributions in possession.
The question then, is what would happen if Smalling were to leave Old Trafford, a situation that now seems almost a matter of when. A few years ago, it seemed most Premier League clubs would be interested in his services. But as ball-playing centre-halves and back threes take the Premier League by storm, you have to wonder whether managers would prefer to recruit a limited centre-half moving down the league or a young, technically gifted defender whose career is on a more upward trajectory.
Players like Maguire and Michael Keane can do what Smalling does defensively, but they offer that quality going forward as well. Sure, some managers may view Smalling’s experience as the more pertinent asset, but with a greater emphasis on style of football than ever before, that cohort is inevitably growing slimmer.
That’s not to criticise Smalling; few players have made their way from non-league to the most successful club in the history of English football and for the rare bunch who have, you’d expect consistency of technique to be amongst their more frustrating flaws. Smalling plays within his limitations and that has made him a very effective defender at times, just not a particularly modern one – something which harks back to Ferguson’s final few seasons in charge at Old Trafford.
Amongst Ferguson’s greatest traits as a manager was spotting and adopting growing Premier League trends, using Manchester United’s gigantic wealth to mimic or improve upon the innovations of his rivals. But during his final few years at Old Tafford, Ferguson brought in a number of players who, just like Smalling, are quickly losing relevance amid tactical changes to the modern game.
Phil Jones isn’t much of a ball-playing centre-half either, Shinji Kagawa belongs to the band of No.10s who are no longer afforded that roaming central role, wingers of Ashley Young’s variety went out of fashion almost as soon as he signed for United, and old-fashioned poachers like Javier Hernandez are an incredibly rare breed amid the age of the single centre-forward. Perhaps the only exception is David De Gea – very much a modern goalkeeper who can save and distribute with both feet.
In any case though, Smalling finds himself sticking out like a sore thumb during an era in which defenders are questioned over their technical and offensive qualities like never before. Aged 28, he should be enjoying the peak years of his career; instead, he’s struggling for relevance in a rapidly-changing modern game. From here, the only way for Smalling to go is downwards.