The conviction with which Louis van Gaal call Chris Smalling, sitting next to him in a pre-season press conference, with the wrong name only helped in cementing that moment as one of the more memorable ones in his spell in charge of Manchester United. Although, to be fair to him, the way Smalling went on to play that season, the rest of us probably had trouble recognising him as well.
Seemingly out of nowhere, he turned almost into the complete defender. With the pace that he’s always had, he became much more proactive defensively, stepping out of the defensive line to chase down the ball and pressure attackers, while being assured in the danger area and showing a much-improved ability in reading the game. And while he still wasn’t much of a passer from the back, he made up for it by running with the ball up in the midfield. His transformation that season led to him winning United’s Player’s Player of the Year award for the 2015-16 season.
After that career-best, award-winning season, the arrival of Jose Mourinho, a manager renowned for great defensive teams, should have meant even greater things for Smalling. Instead, he’s now back to his old state. He’s not just lost his form, he’s lost his aggressive playing style. He doesn’t seem nearly as confident in closing down attackers, and his reactions have become slower and clumsier.
His suspension in the season opener against Burnley meant breaking up his partnership with Daley Blind. For the previous season, Smalling relied on Blind to act as a safety net, with the Dutchman keeping the defence together when Smalling pressed upfield and was the calmer, more composed of the two. With his suspension, new signing Eric Bailly stepped up and was essentially a new and improved version of Smalling. He had a similar style, except he was faster, stronger, and much more aggressive, as well as being more comfortable on the ball. In just one game, Bailly and Blind struck up a great understanding, and Smallng quickly lost his place.
Once Smalling did return to the United starting lineup, paired up with Bailly, with Blind moved to left back, United won just one of the five consecutive games he started. But right there there’s a problem. Smalling was paired with someone who plays like he likes to, except even more aggressively. This restricts him from playing the way he plays best, and without the partner, he relied on to perform, Smalling was always going to find it more difficult. In fact, Smalling has only played with Blind next to him in the centre of defence once, in the EFL Cup win against Northampton.
There is also the matter of the change in defensive systems from Van Gaal’s to Mourinho’s. In Mourinho’s own words at the start of the season:
“We are also trying to switch to zonal marking and that is also difficult if you have had two years of man-to-man. My central defenders have been chasing the opponent even when he goes 15 or 20 metres back down the pitch. I am not saying that system is wrong, I am simply saying it is not my way to do it. I keep telling the players we play zonal now, you don’t follow the man and that way we stay compact as a team, but I only have a short time to change ideas that have been put in over two years.”
The system employed by Van Gaal as described by Mourinho fit Smalling like a glove. He could’ve just been talking about Smalling and it would still be as accurate. Which must have made the transition even more difficult for him. He went from being allowed to chase up the field freely with a partner he trusts to have his back, to having to be more restrained, and use his positional intelligence more than his physical abilities, an area he isn’t as strong in.
While this acknowledges the reasons for Smalling struggling to replicate last season’s form this season, this doesn’t excuse him. If he really is as good a defender as his performances last season suggest, he should be able to adapt to a new system and new partners, and he has so far failed to do that. And while pairing him back up with Blind could help, it is highly unlikely that Mourinho will completely change back his defensive system, seeing as his teams’ defences have always been their strong suit, so there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out for Smalling. He must adapt to survive.