Andy Mitten column: Chris Smalling is in the form of his life at Roma – and could still return to Manchester United’s defence
As it stands, Chris Smalling is returning to Manchester United next season. That’s what both he and his club think right now.
United have watched him closely: they’ve sent senior staff to Rome, and the central defender is in regular contact with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and several of his team-mates. Before going out on loan he had been at United for a long time, playing more games for them than Cristiano Ronaldo or Nemanja Vidic. It’s home to him.
Had that opening paragraph been written two months ago, plenty of United fans would have groaned. The general feeling was that Smalling had been given plenty of chances and Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof had both made decent starts to the season in a previously much-maligned central defence.
Opinions have certainly shifted. Lindelof isn’t performing to the expected levels. The Maguire, Jones and Lindelof back three at Bramall Lane on Sunday had a ‘mare.
Smalling? He’s getting better and better, playing the best football of his career in Italy; a country which knows a thing or two about defending. He scored his second goal for Roma at the weekend against Brescia and provided assists for Edin Dzeko and Gianluca Mancini, his 23-year-old central defensive partner. Both were in the Brescia area to attack Justin Kluivert’s ball.
"A ridiculous goal!"
Outrageous interplay from Smalling and Mancini!
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) November 25, 2019
Roma kept another clean sheet and Smalling won more headers than anyone on the pitch and made more interceptions. No player passed the ball as accurately either and he was rated 7.5/10 in Monday’s Gazzetta Dello Sport. As an indicator of what that means, Roy Keane was rated 8 by the paper for his best ever performance for United against Juventus away.
This isn’t a one-off freak performance since Smalling has been consistently brilliant right from the start. Roma manager Paulo Fonseca, the man who wanted to bring him in and pushed hard for him at the end of August told him that he would be playing every week if he showed good form. The Portuguese feels vindicated in his decision to bring him from Manchester for a £2.5 million loan fee – which looks a bargain so far. Fonseca wants Smalling to be a leader, to encourage the younger players. Smalling is not letting him down.
Smalling moved because he wanted to play football. He could have stayed in Manchester and been paid every week and stayed at home with his baby and dogs. Instead, he moved to Rome solo and spent the first six weeks living in a hotel, eating alone in a vegan cafe, where he was convinced that the owners thought he was Billy No Mates because he was always by himself.
His family and dogs are in Italy with him now and he’s played every single minute of every game since making his debut in a defeat to Atalanta in September. Smalling feels that Italian football suits aggressive and quick defenders who want to be a nuisance to strikers.
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He’s learning a new style of football, too. Roma employ a higher defensive line than Smalling has experienced before. He’s not alone in thinking the game is more tactical in Italy, but has enjoyed the change to a league where teams deploy three at the back with two strikers up front and hit a lot of balls into the channels. Yes, teams are harder to break down but he’s relished marking strikers who shift inside every time the ball goes wide. He and Mancini, who only signed in the summer, are forming a good understanding.
In short, he’s loving it. His confidence has soared and Smalling is one of those players who needs to feel confident. He always trained well at United but his morale could be totalled by a couple of bad performances. He also had to put up with some awful online abuse from people calling themselves United fans. He could handle criticism of his performances, but he didn’t like it when it became personal from people who didn’t know him.
The defender, who turned 30 last week, is learning Italian, but knows he’s unlikely to master it before he goes back to Manchester in May with his wife and their young son. Their home and family is in Manchester – Smalling’s mother moved to Manchester too – but they’re all out there enjoying their time in Italy, where he was in shorts and t-shirts until the start of November.
Smalling is lapping up the fan culture: the atmosphere in the stadiums, the ultras with their flags and constant singing behind the goals, the games in grounds he’s not visited before. It has been a richly rewarding experience for him so far but he’s only been in the first team for two months and Roma are not United. Only 33,695 watched that win in the Olimpico at the weekend – less than half the capacity. United play in front of more than twice as many every home game. Serie A is no longer the pinnacle it was in the 1980s and ‘90s either, but Roma are delighted with him. Roma fans love him, he feels the love. It could not have gone better.
Roma have much to play for, sitting fifth, on the same points as Cagliari above them. They want to get back into the Champions League, where they’ve done so well in recent seasons. Juventus and Inter are running away from the rest, but Roma are also in the Europa League. That’s where Smalling thought he’d end up this season for United, a cup rather than league starter, turning out against Astana rather than Arsenal. That’s why he left United – he wanted 40-50 games, not half that.
United will reap the benefit of an improved, even more experienced defender, but if he returns to the first team next season, the man who has made more Serie A assists than Ronaldo this term will have to show that he is a better player than the one who left to general indifference.
United fans have been always been divided on taking back loanees - there’s zero appetite for bringing Alexis Sanchez and his unfeasibly large pay packet back – but there’s no doubt that Smalling and his former partner Jonny Evans have made their mark away from Old Trafford. Having at least one of them at the heart of United’s inconsistent defence for next season might change some minds.