This week the Red Thoughts team continue their discussion about the centre back positions and ask, is Chris Smalling good enough for United’s first team?
CARL: I ask myself whether he is all that good, or whether Van Gaal’s system made it seem like he’s better than he really is. His performance against Middlesborough, following that awful performance he put in against Chelsea a couple of months ago, did nothing to qualm the concerns I had about his reliability in a Mourinho system. Let’s face it, LVG’s set-up and tactical gameplay was one that aided the defence no end. It was an extremely disciplined, man-marking set-up where hardly any players were allowed to roam out of their fixed positions. The CB’s therefore were never short of close support from teammates around them and they had two sit-in CDMs for protection.
LVG’s system was also obsessively possession based, we spent a large proportion of matches maintaining hold of possession at all cost, so we would spend less time being required to defend attacks. Now, compare this defensive style to Jose’s, where we play a more open, expansive game with a zonal-marking system and less emphasis on holding onto possession. In this system, we take the game to the opposition more, but this can leave us potentially shorter at the back when we’re pressing and there’s a greater danger of being broken down by the opposition. This zonal system requires a lot more of each individual CB working on his own initiative rather than shadowing an opposition player and doesn’t offer the level of security from surrounding teammates that LVG’s deep-laying, man-marking system does. On the few rare occasions last season where we needed to take more risks, in matches such as Newcastle and Wolfsburg, we opened up a bit more and this led to us getting exposed and conceding very easily. Or, more to the point, Smalling made errors of judgement and he revealed signs of vulnerability.
RICK: Smalling this season has been quite poor and indecisive. Whether that’s because he’s adapting to the system like the others were and needs time, or whether it’s that he can’t adapt and play this system, remains to be seen. I also believe he should be on the right side of the CB pairing, as whenever he’s played on the left side, even under LVG, he’s been shaky. In my opinion, he was the one who let Leadbitter score the Middlesbrough goal as he didn’t mark him properly, although you could argue Fellaini didn’t track him from midfield.
COREY: Does the system make much of a difference? I mean if you take the best of defenders and leave them exposed, the best of attackers will exploit them.
How much of a difference did Carrick’s absence make against Boro? Jones has benefited from having Carrick in front of him. My second question regarding Smalling is, was it just lack of form? Look at Rooney or Pogba and their highs and lows… maybe Smalling benefitted from having regular games under LVG. Herrera is a perfect example of a player that struggled with form when not getting regular playing time… and my third question is, if a player struggles to adapt to certain playing styles, does it make him a bad player? He is a world class talent, and was brilliant at Fulham and under LVG. Look at Zlatan and Pep at Barca, does that make Zlatan a bad player? Sometimes players just don’t gel with certain coaches or playing styles, that’s not always a reflection of their talent.
CARL: If you think it’s form-based then fair enough, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s always looked dodgy in an England shirt too. The Zlatan and Pep comparison is not the same thing. Zlatan was not performing poorly for Pep, Pep sought something different in a forward, it was about stylistic preference. Smalling is not performing to a required standard in the role he’s been placed. I’m not saying he’s poor, I’m saying given his poor showings under Jose so far, it’s fair to be asking questions.
Bailly and Blind played at CB together for the first handful of games this season and were very solid. And guess what? Fellaini was the person in front of them, not Carrick.
Smalling is most certainly not world class. The fact is Smalling has been shit. And whilst we play a more open, less defensively tight system under Jose, we’ve only conceded 3 more goals than we had at this same stage last season and considering 5 of those goals were largely Smalling’s fault in TWO games (the one against Boro and the four against Chelsea) that says that our defenders have adapted brilliantly to and been coached brilliantly in this system. All of them but Smalling.
BETS: Smalling isn’t good enough, and yes LVG’s system did help disguise that to some extent but he was already poor in the second half of last season, so even that system didn’t help him enough! As for whether he needs time to adapt to the system, well, Bailly, a very inexperienced young CB who’d never even played in the EPL before, managed to stroll into the side and immediately became our best CB. I think that shows that he is the only (possibly) world class CB we have. The other two are not great either – I would say both average Premier League CBs at best. What they do have that Smalling lacks is personality on the pitch and they at least give the impression of having fire in their bellies.
This is why I’m very concerned about the report in the Express that Mou has decided against Lindelof, especially with Bailly going to AFCON. We’re oozing class now everywhere else on the pitch but we will be exposed in this area constantly whether they are playing the best attackers or the Leadbitters of this world.
CARL: I agree. Though I do think whilst none of our CBs but possibly Bailly are potentially world class, they are good CBs who are getting very good defensive coaching and the results are looking pretty solid. So I don’t think we’re in too bad of a shape back there, but yes, we could undoubtedly improve, you can always improve.
HEMOR: Is Smalling good enough? I don’t know for sure, but 6 months ago I was absolutely certain Rojo wasn’t good enough and look how that has turned out! Jose is one of the best managers at getting the best out of a defender, so if Smalling is willing to work hard, no doubt he’ll make a solid defender. However I do agree with Carl, if a defender only plays well in a rigid and cautious system then he’s certainly not good enough.
CARL: Personally I’d even have Blind ahead of Smalling right now. Blind delivers in three areas that are important in a zonal-system and in which Smalling has shown himself to be uncertain in: composure, distribution and decision-making. The biggest concern is definitely that his decision making leaves a lot to be desired and that’s crucial to this way of playing.
HEMOR: Yeah, Blind is a very intelligent player and he uses his intelligence to make up for a lack of pace and power, but once in a while he gets exposed. I’m certain he’ll make a decent choice if we have any injury though or when we decide to rest players.
BETS: If I had to sell one of the three, Smalling, Jones or Rojo – I’d sell Jonesy.
RICK: I’d wait to see what’s going on with Smalling. Jones has had one bad game it doesn’t really make him terrible, whereas Smalling has been terrible all season. In the Middlesborough game he was replaced by Rojo because he was terrible. It doesn’t really give you much confidence. So right now, if anyone was to be sold, as much as I like Smalling, he’d be the one I’d sell.
HEMOR: I’d keep Jones, considering how he has improved. If Smalling can perform well before the season ends, then I’d consider keeping him, otherwise he’s gone. I’d sell Rojo because I still don’t fully trust him, I believe he’ll give away a stupid FK or PK and probably even get a red card for another reckless tackle.
JIM: Smalling has too many errors in him to be a starting CB for the next several years. As good as he was last season, the way we played and set up helped him massively and we’ve seen already that under Jose his rashness can be costly.
DAN: I think Van Gaal’s tactics helped Smalling settle into the season and relax. He had that horror game against City and then as the season went on he relaxed. I think if it wasn’t for injury and the form of Bailly and Rojo, he would be in the side now. Mourinho seems to trust him enough to give him the arm band. There are aspects of his game which need improving, but I’m sure he knows that and is working on them. I think we are blessed at the moment, we have 4/5 good options at CB.
REX: I think time will tell us all about Chris this season. Even in his time with LVG, with the system and all, De Gea was still our best player. Making save after save, after save to bail us out. So as far as not conceding, DDG had a lot more to do with that than Smalling or the defence in general.
Smalling needs to bulk up. He’s tall and quick, but he gets pushed around a lot and is prone to mistakes and injuries.
This season is a true test, because Mourinho requires defenders, especially centre halves, to actually defend. He needs to learn a trade in defending. We know Jones is a hard tackler, sometimes to his own detriment, because he gets hurt a lot. But if I were to ask what does Chris do best, it’s hard to say, because he’s not a good tackler, and he’s not exactly a reader of the game either. So he ends up in between and his errors come when his mind is caught between tackling (50-50 balls) or just reading what the opposition might be trying to do.
FAB: There have been a few ups and downs in Smalling’s career and we are coming to the most important point and a huge decision for him, potentially the end of his Manchester United career. He did start the season well, but had a complete breakdown against Chelsea, one of his worst performances to date. Mourinho said he was injured but the Middlesbrough game did put into question his ability to defend once again. I absolutely agree with Carl regarding LVG’s system. One of the few things I liked from Van Gaal’s process was the way the team would defend and how he created a well-structured defence that would never fail you. Under Mourinho the defence has more work to do, and Smalling is apparently left exposed, clearly meaning that the player isn’t good enough.
RICK: I have to disagree with both of you about LVG’s defensive system. Under Jose I feel our defence is more solid and they are working more as a team. They are also putting their bodies on the line, diving in front of shots etc. Whenever we played under LVG, especially when we went 1-0 up, I was always waiting for the opposition to equalise and 8 times out of 10 it happened. May I remind you that LVG set the record for number of draws, more specifically 1-1 draws.
CARL: We were shaky at times but there’s no doubt everything about LVG’s system was beneficial to our defence but in turn it blunted our attack. No forward ambition whatsoever.
BETS: Just one question though: if Smalling only looked good because of LVG’s system, how come Jones and Rojo looked so bad under the same system? I truly hope I’m wrong but I think all three – Smalling, Rojo and Jones – are an accident waiting to happen, whatever system we’re playing.