Manchester United’s defensive problems played a key role in Jose Mourinho losing his job in December. They were regularly exposed and the former manager used their frailties as an excuse to play football of an atrophying nature. However, the Red Devils have kept four clean sheets in their last four league games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Victor Lindelof has emerged as a defensive leader and Phil Jones and Eric Bailly have done well alongside the Swede. A foot injury kept Chris Smalling away from the Solskjaer revolution until against Fulham on Saturday. With Paris Saint-Germain looming on Tuesday, the Norwegian rung in the changes. Lindelof was rested and Smalling made his first appearance under Solskjaer. A tactical analysis of his performance based on statistic will show the England man didn’t look out of place in the new look Manchester United side.
Chris Smalling is different from Victor Lindelof and that’s a good thing
Lindelof has shown that he is an excellent reader of the game and he is finally being allowed to use his ability on the ball under Solskjaer. However, Smalling is a completely different kind of centre-back. His lack of ball playing skills have kept him out of the England squad but he has more tangible qualities. The Englishman remains an excellent defender inside the penalty box. He has the physical ability to keep more robust strikers in check. Lindelof remains suspect against more physical forwards and needs protection from the midfielder and his defensive partner.
Fulham were the perfect kind of opposition for Smalling to get introduced into Solskjaer’s side. Aleksandar Mitrovic is the kind of forward who could have troubled Lindelof. Smalling, alongside Jones, was the perfect kind of centre-back pairing to challenge the Serb. After an edgy start, the 29-year-old kept a check on the Mitrovic. He won five of his eight aerial duals against the Fulham forward.
Nemanja Matic is often tasked with helping out Lindelof against more physical threats. With Smalling keeping the striker quiet, the midfielder had the freedom to be more forward-looking.
Smalling is aware of his limitations and keeps his passing simple. An 85 per cent passing percentage and 44 touches on the ball showed the defender played within himself. His heat map shows that he rarely ventured beyond the half-way line. With Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Matic in action, Smalling just concentrated on defending.
Can Chris Smalling force his way back into the team?
Smalling shone under Louis van Gaal and became a regular in the team under Mourinho too. Despite the arrival of Lindelof and Bailly in 2016, the England man remained the cornerstone of Manchester United’s defence. The Swede’s emergence as the undisputed starter this season and Bailly’s recent performances have threatened to relegate the 29-year-old to the bench.
However, his performance against Fulham has come at the right time for the player. Lindelof and Bailly are expected to start against PSG on Tuesday night at Old Trafford. But Smalling has given Solskjaer something to ponder as his side approach a tough set of fixtures. The Manchester United manager will be chopping and changing his team ahead of a daunting month. Smalling’s show against Fulham could be a relief for Solskjaer. He is now aware that he has considerable defensive resources on the bench to call upon until the end of the season.
Smalling provides a different kind of option for the Manchester United manager to work with. He can now afford to take Lindelof out of the team for a breather and not lose sleep over it. The England defender remains a flawed centre-back but his experience will come into play later in the season. His ability against more physical strikers also provides Solskjaer with the option of even partnering him with Lindelof in some games.
The former Fulham defender has given himself and his manager a huge boost through his performance at his former stomping ground on Saturday.
But what about Chris Smalling’s future at Manchester United?
Smalling signed a new contract until 2022 with Manchester United in December. However, it is far from certain that he has a future at the club beyond the summer.
Manchester United are almost certain to spend big on a senior centre-back in the summer. Argentine Marcos Rojo is likely to leave the club and they could look to offload one more defender to make space in the squad and the wage bill. The smart money is on Smalling at the moment to make way for a new signing.
Jones, who also signed a new contract this month, is under threat too but there are suggestions that Smalling could be sold. The 29-year-old has a number of suitors in the Premier League and there is a feeling Manchester United could get big money for him.
But is Chris Smalling willing to leave? He wasn’t last summer
A lot will depend on how much he plays for the rest of the season and the appointment of the new manager in the next summer. If a big money name is brought in, he is almost certain to start. If Lindelof continues to impress, he is likely to form the first choice pairing with the new signing. At 29, Smalling might not be tempted enough to fight for a place in the first eleven. He would want assurances over minutes in the team. The Englishman is good enough to walk into a number of Premier League defences. Arsenal have been long term admirers and a move to north London could excite him.
However, a lot of football needs to be played from now until the end of the season. Bailly’s erratic performances could easily bring Smalling back into the starting eleven picture. Manchester United could even decide against spending big on a big name centre-back like Kalidou Koulibaly and bring in someone younger.
It is easy to forget but Smalling is one of the most decorated players in the current Manchester United squad. He is a two-time Premier League winner and won the FA Cup, the Europa League and the EFL Cup at Old Trafford. His performance against Fulham was a reminder that he is still part of the club. He was unlucky to miss the start of Solskjaer’s reign with an injury and has therefore dropped back in the pecking order. But Smalling has been an ultimate survivor at Manchester United. It would not be a huge surprise if he stays at the club long enough to earn a testimonial.