Following a red card in the FA Cup final last season, Chris Smalling was due to miss the first few games of Mourinho’s debut campaign through suspension – he also picked up an unfortunate injury during the summer which left him out of the team for even longer than expected. Last season, United would have struggled to cope without the reliability and composure of one of England’s best centre backs. This season, United are yet to lose a Premier League fixture and Smalling has played a mere couple of minutes. Smalling only missed three Premier League fixtures last season and was undoubtedly a vital member of the side that conceded just 35 goals in the Premier League.
When Eric Bailly’s move from Villarreal to Manchester United was announced, most thought it would be Blind who would fall out of the team and not Smalling. Fans were very sceptical when Louis van Gaal started Blind in a centre back role rather than as a midfielder. Nevertheless, the new position worked well as he featured in all but three Premier League fixtures last season – only Juan Mata played more. This season, a string of strong performances have kept Blind in the team alongside Eric Bailly and have managed to keep Smalling away.
Daley Blind formed a formidable partnership with Chris Smalling last season – the best since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were playing and Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. The partnership worked well, but they still had to rely on David De Gea to make some exceptional saves at times last season. So far this season, Blind and Bailly have been very convincing and De Gea has had far less to do. Therefore, it is understandable that Mourinho has not changed anything. Why change something that works so well?
Smalling and Blind worked well together last season. With help from David De Gea, they ensured United had the best defence in the league – no team conceded fewer goals in the Premier League than Manchester United did. A feat that was partly due to Smalling’s consistency, aerial ability and tackling ability. Smalling made no defensive errors from any of his 35 Premier League appearances and he won 64% of his headers. Statistics like these suggest Smalling is good enough to be starting for United.
Smalling is unquestionably a talented player. His inclusion in the England squad for their fixture against Slovakia, despite having made no starts so far this season, is evidence of this. Smalling has had an impressive past few seasons and has become a very good player to have on the team. A player of his ability could be starting every match. The fact that he isn’t is an indication of this new team’s impressive squad depth. Smalling, Blind and Bailly are all very talented centre backs. Any of them could be sitting on the bench – Smalling was just unlucky as he was absent through suspension and through injury.
Strong defensive partnerships are imperative to winning titles; Ferdinand and Vidic were a perfect example for several years. Morgan and Huth are other examples playing for Leicester City last season. Blind and Bailly could be United’s this season. It is unfortunate for Smalling who may be on the bench far more than he would have liked, but as long as Blind and Bailly can continue their form, it will be difficult for Smalling to find his way into the starting line-up despite his ability. Keeping a similar starting eleven each week is very important to having a successful season and Mourinho is aware of this.