Why Chris Smalling shouldn’t start the 2017 Europa League final against Ajax

by Sam Peoples

Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia and Sergio Romero. Three players who have made magnificent improvements in their all-round game under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, three players who will all start tonight for Manchester United against Ajax and deservedly so.

With Eric Bailly out suspended, Mourinho has a decision to make – who should partner Daley Blind in the heart of defence? Both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling travelled to Stockholm and are available to start. Who is the best choice? For me, Jones is an easy decision to make.

Last year, Smalling was named the Players’ Player of the Year after a fantastic season under Louis van Gaal. He completely turned his Man United fortunes around since getting himself sent off away at city and turned himself into one of the most dependable centre-backs in the Premier League.

Yet, almost spectacularly, Smalling’s decline under Mourinho has been steep. It all started really with his performance away at Chelsea and unfortunately his performances have really not improved much at all since then. Injuries have made it more difficult but Smalling has looked more like bambi on ice this year than a defender who, at the age of 27, should be at the peak of his game.

And one look at United’s win rate with and without him really is telling. With Smalling in the team this year we’ve lost 30.8% of our games and without we’ve only lost 4%.

Sure, that doesn’t take into account the teams we’ve been playing but it really is indicative of how much less solid our defence is with Smalling in. I definitely didn’t expect to be saying this at this point last year but Smalling really looks more of a liability than an asset in defence.

As for Jones, there isn’t much of a swing. We’ve lost lost 11.1% of games he’s started and 15.0% he hasn’t.

However, Jones has had a considerably better season than Smalling. As reliably as the sun rises in the east, injuries curtailed Jones’ progress and that was a real shame because there was a point earlier this year where he had his best run of performances in defence – it almost looked like Jones was finally fulfilling his potential, only for injuries to stop that.

In an ideal world we’d have Bailly starting tonight but in his absence, and up against a very exciting Ajax side, I’d much rather have Jones partnering Blind if he’s fit than Smalling but maybe there will be plenty of you who disagree with me.

Who do you think should start in defence? Let me know in the comments below.

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