Chris Smalling (over 6 games, 2015/16 season)
Games: vs Newcastle (27/08/15); at Arsenal (04/10/15); vs Man City (25/10/15); at Newcastle (12/01/16); at Liverpool (17/01/16); at West Brom (06/03/16). There’s also a decent sized conclusion at the bottom if you just want to skip down to that.
If you’ve not read one of these before, I look at a centre-back through the broad categories: ball-playing; positioning; awareness; decision-making; speed/strength. These (more here, including ones on Laporte and Alderweireld) are generally over just a single game, but over six here for a more in-depth look.
Smalling is a very bizarre player when looking at his ball-playing. On the one hand it’s kind of clear that he isn’t meant to be a principal part of build-up play at United. Daley Blind is at centre-back for this exact reason, and against Liverpool in particular Schneiderlin dropped very deep and the passes at the back almost exclusively seemed to happen between him and Blind.
Smalling also demonstrates on numerous occasions why people have these misgivings about him. He misplaces passes, sometimes simple ones. Against Manchester City a pass, though not with the recipients under pressure, curled away from Schweinsteiger and instead went to the United right-back. Against West Brom, after moving into midfield nicely to receive the ball (something he did on a few occasions), an over-enthusiastic fairly short pass went out of play, ending an attack in the dying minutes.
However, he’s also capable of executing pretty good passes, although this one actually looks easy when you watch it over and over again.
The shape of some of his long passes is quite nice too, even if many of them are quite aimless, the movement of him hitting them is very clean, and a couple are well-hit. I think seeing a pass is a problem for him. There are times when opponents let him carry the ball into their half and there is very little threat, although to be fair to Smalling this is partly because when he does this none of his team-mates make much movement to make themselves available for him.
His touch is also a problem, too heavy when it needs to be soft or too soft when it needs to be firmer. If he improves his touch, that’ll probably help, because it’ll probably make his teammates trust him more in build-up play, but his vision to see a pass needs to be quicker too.
Positioning is something that Smalling is quite good at. At its lowest level its very basic, but at its highest it can make you into a good if not great Champions League level centre-back. What’s interesting about him (as has been briefly mentioned), considering his not-so-good reputation on the ball, is his positioning to receive passes. He semi-regularly steps into pockets of available space, although maybe this is because the opposition don’t consider him enough of a threat to close down or reduce available space.
However, sometimes this kind of positional movement is lacking, in a way that kind of seems lazy or negligently assuming that his team-mates will be fine with the ball (which, it has to be said, they often are).
His defensive positioning is generally fine on this more basic level. If he’s out of position it’s generally the result of a lack of awareness or decision making (these things are all partially linked, but there are cases where it’s easier to separate it out).
Here, the positioning of the backline (led by Smalling) means that it’s taking three defenders to cover two attackers. Blind can’t adequately cover either player from this angle – he gets tight to Walcott and a path to Özil down the middle comes open, if he gets too tight to Özil then the pass to Walcott opens, as it does. Smalling’s positioning does absolutely nothing to help his defence, essentially actively hinders it, and is actually in a position to do something about it.
I think good awareness, or a lack of it, is what separates the decent centre-backs from the great ones. Smalling’s is…. mmmeh. Undoubtedly better than most, but not elite.
For example, he loses Walcott here a little.
What probably typifies his level of awareness though is a moment against Manchester City.
It’s a little hard to see in the gif but here, Smalling is forcing himself to be so aware of Bony that his positioning is stuttering. For some players these kind of skills will come more naturally – just like Smalling will have skills that come naturally to him that won’t come as easily to lower-down defenders.
Some players will ‘naturally’ have a good awareness of where a striker is around them, by absorbing information quickly when they look around them and knowing where the striker is likely to move next. Smalling doesn’t seem to have this quite down, and it shows here.
Decision-making is another area where I am concerned about Smalling compared to the standard that he has to be to be the first choice centre-back at Manchester United (and, presumably quite soon, England). A few times this has involved stepping out of the defensive line to press a midfielder or deeper attacker and leaving gaps behind him, or things like the recent game against Man City where he followed Aguero until they were almost out of Manchester and got a booking for it.
Perhaps it’s a result of Louis van Gaal’s system requiring him to follow or close down men, but other examples include this one against Liverpool, where he follows Emre Can into a fairly non-threatening area leaving an acre of space behind him.
He’s lucky, really, that Moreno’s pass isn’t very good. Perhaps Smalling thought Blind was closing the void he was leaving. In fairness, this type of thing isn’t a regular occurrence, but it is an illustration of a wider problem he has in assessing situations and choosing the best option.
Speed/strength (and how to overcome them)
Smalling is pretty quick (compared to Blind particularly), and generally pretty strong in a useful way. By that I mean that he might not be a love-child of the Hulk and a brick wall, but he knows how to hold off strikers and win headers using his centre of gravity, stance, timing of jump etc. These last couple of probably underrated strengths among defenders generally (although may reinforce the stereotype that centre-backs just need to be big strong-guys), but at the level people want Smalling to be at they should mostly be a given.
One part of Smalling’s game that I really have a problem with is the grappling. I wrote this tweet as I was watching games for this piece, and this match had happened long enough ago for me to forget how the goals happened.
Ha, rewatching N’castle-Utd 3-3, made a note that Smalling grappling doesn’t make me confident in his ability. 2 mins later gives away a pen
— mark (@ETNAR_uk) March 20, 2016
The penalty that Smalling gave away was for grappling, tugging at the strikers’ shirts and arms, and he does it a lot. Now, all defenders do, but the extent to which Smalling does it makes me concerned. It seems like (he feels at least) that holding onto the striker for dear life is the only way that he’ll be able to stick with them.
This might be linked to his lack of top quality awareness, that he does actually need to be holding onto guys to make sure that he’ll be within stretching distance to block a shot if they get the chance. It doesn’t always result in a penalty, but if often feels like at some point the technique is going to give way and result in a goal.
It’s at this point that I should say that I’ve perhaps been a little harsh on Smalling, but only because I’m framing my assessment of him from a “this guy is who Manchester United’s top centre-back is” point of view. If Smalling had never moved away from Fulham, and was exactly the same player only playing at a Championship Craven Cottage, I’d be a lot more positive because he’s a lot better than a Championship-level player.
However, there’s enough that concerns me that I just don’t think he’s quite as good as his reputation is. His below-top quality awareness and his troubles on the ball betray him, although his positioning is pretty good. A recent episode of the United Rantcast (which I highly recommend if you like United chat) mentioned that Daley Blind looked tired, and I think the same may be true of Smalling too, which may be where some of the grappling and bad decisions in the last few months may come from.
A lot of how a centre-back ends up looking is dependent on the system they’re in. I don’t think that Alderweireld is the best centre-back in the Premier League but he might have been the best performer this season, in large part because of Spurs’ system. If Man City’s centre-backs were in that system they’d look fantastic at best and impressively competent at the very, very worst. I think if Smalling was put into that system, for example, he’d be at a similar level to Alderweireld on average.
My gut says that he’d be an ok first choice (as in the best CB in the squad) centre-back for 6th place and downwards – which, coincidentally, he is at the moment. If he’s England’s best centre-back then that’s at least as much of an indictment of the talent England is producing as it is praise of Smalling.