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Chris Smalling: A flawed starter but valuable squad player

Chris Smalling is one of the longest-tenured Manchester United players at the club. He was purchased by Sir Alex Ferguson from Fulham in 2010. At his time at the club, he’s won two Premier League titles, an Emirates FA Cup, an EFL Cup and a UEFA Europa League trophy. Despite these honors, Smalling has never quite lived up to the expectations of supporters.

After Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic left the club in 2014, Smalling has, when fit, been a nailed-on starter in central defense. Though he has had solid stretches of play during that time, most notably in 2014/15, he has never quite been able to adequately step up as the leader of United’s defense over the long haul.

Smalling lacks composure and technique when on the ball in possession. He rarely plays a forward pass between the lines to move the team forward even when afforded time and space. All too often he is eager to play simple square passes to the fullback or his center back partner. When put under the slightest modicum of pressure Smalling will either play it back to the keeper or hoof it aimlessly forward.

Defensively he’s also prone to making critical mistakes. He was sent off in a Manchester derby back in 2014 for two yellow card offenses in the first half. In United’s 2016 FA Cup triumph over Crystal Palace Smalling was sent off for a needless and rash tackle on Yannick Bolasie near the halfway line for his second yellow card. Just last week he was overpowered and outmaneuvered by Vincent Kompany for Manchester City’s opening goal on a corner.

As a starter, over a long enough sample, these deficiencies in his qualities hold a club like Manchester United back from achieving its ambitions. The feeling among many supporters is that Smalling is simply not good enough and should be binned off as soon as possible.

However, building a squad capable of competing across all fronts domestically and in Europe requires a deep squad with a variety of qualities. Smalling is certainly not a player you want in your best XI week in and week out, but he would be an excellent squad player to rotate in to give your starters a rest.

He also brings certain qualities to the team which his competition in central defence lacks. He is the strongest individual defender at the club — which is still ultimately the priority for defenders even in an era where every team wants defenders comfortable playing out from the back.

Smalling is far and away the best centre-back at the club in challenging for aerial duels. He wins 3.71 aerial duels per 90 minutes, with Phil Jones coming a distant second at 2.46. He also comfortably tops the charts for interceptions (2.24) and tackles won (0.95) per 90 minutes.

Additionally, one thing Smalling has proven over the years is his durability. The best ability is availability and with the number of injuries United have endured at the heart of defense over the years, his ability to stay fit should not be dismissed lightly.

United are almost certainly going to look to add another central defender this summer as they should. Smalling really shouldn’t be a starter past the end of the season if United are serious about challenging for top honors in the league or in Europe. However, when Jose Mourinho is looking at who needs to make way this summer Smalling’s value as a squad player shouldn’t be dismissed just because circumstance has forced him into a station above his ability.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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