The English defender had a roller coaster ride at Old Trafford but his stint in Serie A has reinvigorated him as a player.
As Manchester United endured their worst defensive record in a single Premier League campaign in 2018-19, conceding 54 goals in 38 games, the scapegoats were rather predictable. Chris Smalling was one of the few Manchester United players inherited by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who has been part of the downward trend of the club.
So his inability to impress the Norwegian gaffer meant that a shuffle was required again in their backline, despite investing in many defenders over the years. Harry Maguire was ushered in for a world-record fee, which meant that Smalling’s opportunities would be greatly limited. Instead of sitting on the bench enjoying his pay, the Englishman decided on a bold move.
Like many Premier League stars over the years, he was attracted to a move to the Serie A. A league known for its defensive sturdiness, intricate tactics and old-school style. Smalling rolled the dice on a loan move to AS Roma, the perennial mid-table underdogs of Serie A and a side respected and loved by many.
Even the Giallorossi’s fans themselves weren’t sure how to take this transfer. Smalling had earned the reputation of being an error-prone centre-back who tends to get outwitted on quite a few occasions. But Roma’s tactics worked wonders to set the Englishman’s career back on track.
To his credit, Smalling adapted to his new surrounding extremely quickly. He understood the physicality and old-school vibe to the league pretty well and was definitely helped by Paulo Fonseca’s intelligent work in guiding him. Despite not having a consistent partner beside him, the Englishman held his own with his compelling style which clicked well in Italy.
With his ability in the air, Smalling was easily able to nullify the aerial threat many Serie A teams rely upon. He was able to dominate the bullish centre-forwards with his composed style and stop them from getting multiple chances, using his man-marking ability to perfection.
The 30-year-old also arrived with bags of experience within his arsenal, mostly thanks to a near-decade career at Old Trafford. The Englishman used his game-reading ability and experience in dealing with traditional centre-forwards really well to help ease the pressure on those around him.
In doing so, Smalling has notched up some impressive stats in Serie A. With 3.3 aerial duels won, 4.2 clearances won per game and a 90.3% passing accuracy, the Englishman has statistically been one of the very best in the league.
Of course he’s been helped by a stick of fortune as well in the last few months. Unlike the Premier League, Serie A isn’t a league with teams blessed with exceptional pace nor the intensity which often broke him in England. With strikers not being the most agile or having the tendency to directly run at him, Smalling’s defensive vulnerability has been shadowed over.
But one has to applaud his effort for a Roma side containing a number of error-prone, inconsistent defenders. Despite watching those beside him often get replaced or benched, he’s led with an iron fist, thanks to his composed style.
Last season, the Englishman only managed two clean sheets in the league for United. This season, he’s already managed six in the Serie A. One of them included schooling former United teammate Romelu Lukaku in the goalless draw against Inter Milan earlier this season.
It’s quite clear that he’s found his comfort zone in the Serie A. Smalling is a very intelligent defender when motivated enough to perform. With his slightest of errors getting magnified at United, with fans constantly blaming him for the whole squad’s players, his confidence never reached a peak high at Old Trafford.
But the Roma fans have warmed up to him, being good readers of a good centre-back. Smalling has a very Italian-style of defending which has made him such a favourite in his new home. He loves to hassle it out with defenders, is nearly indomitable in the air and has the capability of moving forward with the ball as well as have an impact in set-pieces.
So there’s no guessing why the Giallorossi want to extend his stay at Rome. United, however, aren’t interested in letting him go for cheap. With the Covid-19 impacting their finances, Roma may have to negotiate another loan spell with an option to buy in 2021. Nonetheless, the Italian side will be focused on keeping Smalling for the forseeable future.
With Fonseca aiming long-term revolving around his bubbling youngsters, the Englishman is the experienced, composed defensive general they need to guide those young defenders and inspire them to build a strong, impenetrable backline for the Giallorossi over the next decade.