When Chris Smalling was sent off in the Manchester derby earlier in the season, his Manchester United career was hanging by a thread.
His actions contributed to his side taking nothing from a meeting with one of their biggest rivals, and some fans even suggested that he had put the final nail in his United coffin. Smalling had failed to live up to expectations at Old Trafford and had become a liability.
However, since his return from that suspension, Smalling has been nothing short of a revelation. He has matured massively, become United’s best central defender and is developing into a leader. Some might say that he is now the long-term solution to their defensive problems.
|Total Tackle||Total Clearance||Duel Won||Aerial Won||Interception||Mins Played|
Smalling has taken to Van Gaal’s ideas. He likes his central defenders to glide out of the backline with the ball at their feet to commit opposition midfielders, therefore dragging them out of position.
Like Rio Ferdinand used to do, Smalling is doing this regularly during matches and it gives the midfielders more room in which to manoeuvre. From panicking in possession, Smalling has become much more composed when entering the opposing half of the field.
The 25-year-old has also developed his defensive side of the game. Although his positioning does still need work, he can read the game well. He often reads passes and nips in to intercept the ball, making 2.5 per 90 minutes played this season.
Nemanja Vidic used to be a magnet on crosses. Whenever the ball was delivered into the box, he almost always was the one to clear it away. There are signs of this in Smalling. He has made the most clearances per 90 at United this season with 8.19.
There is no doubt that David de Gea will pick up United’s player of the year award for the second year in a row, but an honourable mention has to go to Chris Smalling, who has been absolutely brilliant since returning from his red card at the Etihad.
His new contract, which keeps him at the club until 2019, is fully deserved.