From David De Gea’s new deal and Anthony Martial’s blistering start, to a Champions league defeat and Luke Shaw’s injury, the last week or so has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Manchester United.
Amid the ups and downs though, Chris Smalling continues to emerge as a symbol of calm consistency.
It has taken a while for United to find a defender to command their back line with the style and composure of Rio Ferdinand, but the 25 year old’s recent form suggests he could be that man.
Smalling has plenty of similarities with his former team-mate. A natural athlete and a ball playing centre-half, the 6 ft 3 defender bears striking similarities to Ferdinand in his prime.
Smalling is also blessed with pace and seems to be making steady progress with his positioning. This season he is averaging almost 8.5 clearances per game which is one of the best statistics in the league.
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These are not the only figures which justify the recent praise he’s been getting. He and current centre back partner, Daley Blind, both have excellent pass completion stats this term, contributing to United’s ability to dominate possession.
The pair have marshalled the side to three clean sheets so far, in a solid if yet uninspiring start to the campaign.
There are a variety of reasons the former non-league player has been able to separate himself from the cluster seeking to be United’s strongest defensive asset. All are in some way linked to confidence. The post Moyes era saw the first full season in which United competed without their last title winning defence.
The absence of senior players such as Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra was made even more difficult as the squad was besieged by injuries at the back.
Louis van Gaal tried a multitude of rearguard arrangements, not all through choice. In the latter part of the campaign though, it was Smalling who finally seemed to seize an opportunity and become the senior figure.
The manager’s decision to give him the captain’s armband for certain matches was a great show of faith and a welcome psychological lift.
The Red Devils were also consistently linked with big money defensive signings that failed to materialise.
Aside though, for a failed approach for Thomas Vermaelen, United made no actual moves. This would have offered great encouragement to the England man as it proved the club saw him as the future of their back line.
In the most recent window, Johnny Evans, a more experienced squad member and rival for a starting berth, was allowed to move on, further re-affirming Smalling’s status within van Gaal’s ranks.
He was also rewarded with a new contract in April which commits him to the Old Trafford side until 2019. The former Fulham man remains a firm favourite of England boss Roy Hodgson and his attitude and approach to the game have helped him gain the trust of his manager now at international and club level.
If the Greenwich-born man can continue to build on his current good form while maintaining his fitness, there is no doubting his ability to emulate Ferdinand for both club and country.
The long term absence of Shaw from the squad will of course have a major effect on United’s back four but it will be interesting to see how it impacts on Smalling’s progress.
Marcus Rojo replaced Shaw against PSV but van Gaal seems yet to be convinced of the Argentine’s ability. The coach preferred Daley Blind in the left back slot for substantial periods last season and could revert to the same plan now which would mean changing the centre back pairing again.
This will depend on the fitness of Phil Jones, who himself has struggled with injury.
Van Gaal will need to shuffle his pack based on which defenders are available but the injury to Shaw ultimately means Smalling’s place on the team sheet is even more secure.