The best defender in the best defence in the Premier League.
Never has sentence looked less likely to be about Chris Smalling and Manchester United.
But here we are, just over a third of the way into the season and that’s the state of play. United offer all the entertainment of back to back episodes of Loose Women, but that blame lies firmly at the part of the pitch where their attackers are amusingly hoofing shoots into the stand. The defence has made up for the lack of goals, helping secure four one goal wins to date that could easily have slipped into the ‘underwhelming draw’ category. Smalling has been crucial in making that happen.
Having initially joined Manchester United so long ago that he can remember a Michael Owen telling everyone to ‘dink it over the keeper’ as a player rather than a uninspiring pundit, Smalling’s success has been a long time coming. As tends to happen with multi-million pound young signings, the hype and hope never seemed to match the standard of performance provided by the Londoner.
Fergie’s plan to gradually integrate him into the first team alongside the experienced excellence of Nemanja Vidic and slightly less excellence of Rio Ferdinand was somewhat hampered by Smalling’s too frequent bursts of the Titus Brambles. The enthusiasm was always evident, the co-ordination sometimes absent.
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But after seemingly falling down the pecking order behind Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and possibly the spirit of Bill Foulkes, this season Smalling has enjoyed a renaissance rarely afforded to players who are hastily labelled as flops. He looked destined to go where all Manchester United defenders who aren’t quite up to standard end up – Sunderland.
But while United’s statistically accurate claim of being the tightest defence in the league is as baffling as Nicki Minaj’s popularity, Smalling has shone as the totem of a patched-together rear-guard. With Phil Jones, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia currently taking long-term turns on the physio table, United have avoided deteriorating into a defensive shambles thanks in large part to Smalling.
In 2014/15, his stock rose thanks to a haul of goals (4) that put alleged striker, Falcao firmly in the shade and often on the bench, but this term the affection has grown based on what is arguably a more crucial skill for defenders – actual defending. That’s not quite enough to get Louis van Gaal to learn his real name and stop calling him Mike in what seems like an ongoing Only Fools And Horse reference, but it’s progress for the former Fulham man.
- Just 13 games into this season, he has already managed 25 successful tackles. His total tally for 2014/2015 was 36.
- His best career total for tackles in a Premier League season is the 43 of 2013/14.
- Added to that is 30 interceptions – already his second best season total in his career and very likely to exceed his best of 58.
Beyond the cold hard numbers, there’s also the more intangible benefit of the reassurance a group of defenders who have had limited time to get familiar with each other’s quirks and limitations get from having a commanding presence alongside them. He may not yet be the blood and thunder Terry Butcher style leader often demanded of English players, but his quiet confidence may yet blossom into something more shouty and inspirational.
With Manchester United goals looking rarer than laughing at a TV show on E4, it looks like the Red Devils’ title credentials will rely heavily on the continuation of their miserly defence. That will depend largely on Smalling’s form. If he can inspire that level of performance, it might just entitle him to insist LVG drops the Mike.