Photo: Michael Regan (Getty Images)
After his cracking start to the season, Chris Smalling was last night given his full England debut and started as the right-back against Bulgaria in what was a crucial match for England in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. His rise to fame over the past 18 months has been nothing short of phenomenal and his hard work was rewarded with this start tonight. For United this season, he has shown great pace and tenacity in his games as a full back and had the stamina to keep it up for a full 90 minutes: considering he came to United as a central defender, he is quickly showing the versatility that many great professionals struggle to have and United fans were hoping he could put in another barnstorming performance along the right hand side to help England’s push for qualification.
As soon as Smalling had the chance to get forward early on in the ninth minute, he didn’t need a second invitation and burst on the overlap of Walcott before crossing a peach of a ball right on the edge of the six-yard box but nobody could get on the end of it. His runs don’t seem to hinder his defensive game and he really seems like he has the ability to mould himself into a world class full back. After England scored 2 quick goals courtesy of Cahill and Rooney, Bulgaria were deflated and their attacking threat was minimalised to a null for the first 30 minutes but Hart was saved his blushes after misjudging a cross which might have led to a goal if it wasn’t for some great positioning from Smalling. He seems very tactically aware for such a young man and considering right back isn’t his natural position, it is even more incredible to think how quickly he is advancing. The only error of note in the first half was when he was guilty of misjudging a cross of his own but fortunately it led to nothing but a goal kick.
England seemed to take their foot well and truly off the gas after they established a 2-0 lead and Smalling rarely ventured out of his own half for the rest of the first 45 minutes and the trend continued into the second half, especially after Rooney made it 3-0 to England. With only 3 clean sheets in 12 matches, Capello obviously had his eyes firmly set on making that 4 and the defence remained static and held a deep line. Smalling grabbed his third defensive header at the back post after once again placing himself well for the cross and kept looking solid throughout the beginning of the second half, not having much to do with Bulgaria struggling to string a move together. As the second half continued, Bulgaria emulated a defeated team and it all became very easy for England and the defence was hardly even necessary by the end of the game. A timely tackle in the 91st minute to stop a consolation opportunity for Bulgaria was Smalling’s last contribution to a solid performance on the night.
All in all, Smalling had a great debut for England and staked his claim on the England right back spot and with Richards his main opposition, Smalling did himself no harm with the performance tonight. Considering right back is not his natural position and this was his England debut away from home in Eastern Europe, I thought Smalling did very well indeed. His positioning for the overwhelming majority of the game was immaculate and he covered his defence well when necessary, his forward runs were great when he got the chance to go forward but as England went on the defensive pretty early on, he didn’t get many opportunities. As far as a debut for a defender go though, a clean sheet is always the prerogative and Capello will definitely have food for thought before the Wales game next week. Well done Chris. FATV caught up with Chris after the game to get a few words, watch that interview here.