Sir Alex Ferguson would spend around £27 million on bringing Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to Manchester United within a year of each other at the start of the decade, later stating that he saw them as eventual successors to his last truly solid defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. It is now 4 years since Jones joined Smalling at Old Trafford and things haven’t run so smoothly for the pair.
Ferguson spoke highly of both youngsters, perhaps bizarrely claiming Jones could go on to become United’s greatest ever player while he would say Smalling was in store for a long future at the club. Ferguson has since passed and United are nearing the end of a second season, under a second manager, in life after Ferguson and it looks as if those prophecies may only come to fruition for one of them.
After the erroneous year of David Moyes, Vidic and Ferdinand would both depart and with new manager Louis Van Gaal failing to sign a proper centre-half to replace them despite outlaying £170 million, the door seemed open for them, together with Jonny Evans, to show they could indeed provide a reliable long-term base to United’s new era, as well as for England. However Jones has missed 15 of United’s 34 games so far while Smalling has missed 13, starting only 17 games in the Premier League and making a further 4 appearances as a sub.
Van Gaal’s own misgivings over playing with a back 4, at times erring on the side of caution with a back 5, and a litany of injuries and suspensions has stymied any opportunity for Smalling and Jones to strike together a consistent partnership. Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Marcos Rojo- naturally a left-back, have all made at least 10 appearances for United at centre-half this season while Daley Blind, also more at home at left-back, has also filled in there. Jones and Rojo were both again injured for the visit to Everton on Sunday, in which Smalling was partnered by McNair in a 3-0 loss that betrayed United’s recent upturn in performances and results.
The defeat at Goodison marked the first time United have lost successive league games under Van Gaal, coming a week after the 1-0 loss at Chelsea stopped a run of 6 straight wins which included impressive victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City. Smalling and Jones were at the back for all three of those games but the 3-0 win over Spurs was their first time together at the back in a pair this season. Incredibly, it was only the fourth time they had played alongside each other in the Premier League.
Jones has acknowledged this has curtailed the chance for the pair to develop an understanding. “It has been difficult for us”, he says, “You cannot build a partnership on four games. Hopefully now we have had back-to-back games together we can keep it going and keep playing well together”. Jones’s latest injury has once again prevented that happening and as the 23 year old enters the final year of his contract, talks still haven’t materialised over a new deal despite reports of an extension.
Smalling however has been given a new five-year deal, a reward for his “improvement and immense rate of development” according to Van Gaal who says the 25 year old has become “an integral member of the first team squad”. Smalling has made all of his 21 appearances this term as a centre-back, in contrast to his time under David Moyes where he often played as a right-back and the improvement has been palpable. He has made more interceptions (47) and won more tackles, 84% of them compared to 69.8%, than he managed throughout the whole of last season and pass completion is up, at 88.6%, to last season’s 82.6% as he has become more assured with his distribution.
Improvement has not only come over the season but in a period of 6 months as in November he was being described by Van Gaal as “stupid” for picking up 2 yellow cards as United fell to defeat in the first Manchester derby of the season. They remain the only cautions he has picked up in this campaign as he has developed a discipline that now makes him a calming presence at the back and having committed 19 fouls he has given away less free-kicks than Jones, Blind and Rojo. With Smalling, void of the haphazard panic he displayed in the first half of the season, in the team Van Gaal may now find, to borrow his phrase, his ass twitching considerably less.
Manchester Evening News now call him the best defender at the club and with Phil Jones still prone to clumsy challenges and rash instances of positional indiscipline, together with Evans’s notable lack of progression, it puts Smalling in the strongest position of the three as United’s defence looks set for a summer upheaval.
Evans, who has made just 14 starts in all competitions under Van Gaal, seems to be the most vulnerable as United reportedly target Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels to add some reliable, top-level experience to a defence that seems extremely young and has had its naivety exposed, most latterly at Everton, on numerous occasions this season.
Van Gaal may go for Hummels as a result of Jones’s injury struggles but Smalling is highly unlikely to be displaced, testament to his tenfold improvement over the past year or so. Ferguson may yet be proved wrong on Jones, but for Smalling his £10 million investment looks set to be proved very astute.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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