Chris Smalling is a case study in how we judge central defenders

Tweets before Manchester United’s appearance in the Europa League final suggested that the biggest threat to their victory over Ajax came from within, from one of their own central defenders.

However, much to the surprise of anyone who may have placed much stock in such tweets, there was nothing but praise for Chris Smalling after the game. There had been nothing but praise for Smalling back in 2015/16, as well. And yet this season he has slipped so far in fans’ estimations that a significant number would like him sold. How can opinion vacillate so much about one player?

It’s certainly fair to say that Smalling has not enjoyed his best season at the club, a sharp contrast with his performances last year under Louis van Gaal. The man who had joined the club in 2010 at just 20-years-old seemed to finally have come of age. Even at the time, though, one could see that the hype around him that season was overblown.

If his character is anything like the way he plays, then Chris Smalling is a man who doesn’t like confrontation. He would back away from it, keeping a (usually) well-judged distance, and intervene only when necessary. He is not a defender who actively likes diving in for challenges.

Sometimes diving in is required of him though, and he does a decent enough job, but has a tendency to look shaky. Even during the Europa League final, a game where he was roundly agreed to have performed well, he looked over-eager at the start when United were instructed to press Ajax early (and briefly) to stamp their mark on the match. Louis van Gaal’s 2015/16 set-up stripped Smalling’s role of any of this work, placing him behind a protective wall of midfielders and tedious football. The system fit the player, and the player looked good.

Under Jose Mourinho, that hasn’t been the case. His United side have two defensive settings: a deep, mercilessly dull defensive bloc designed to shut down games; and a system which requires a certain amount of high pressing and centre-backs stepping up the pitch to confront strikers. Matches for Mourinho’s United feature usually both of these settings to some degree, and the latter makes Smalling look like a rabbit caught in headlights.

It’s probably no surprise that the two central defenders who have unexpectedly impressed under Mourinho are two who have a much more aggressive style of play. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo were, before this season, fringe players at best and squad fodder to be sold next summer at worst. Due to injuries, they had a run of games starting alongside each other, which last season would have given United fans heart palpitations. But instead, they flourished.

How central defenders are judged is heavily dependent on the system they’re playing in. This is not just because they may be well- or badly-suited to it and therefore it may not get the most out of them, but also because it can dramatically affect how good a player they are on a much more fundamental level.

Perhaps it’s just that it’s easier to tell when someone is being played in a role they’re not suited for with other positions. Marouane Fellaini in a creative David-Silva-type role would be obviously wrong, as would David Silva in a Marouane-Fellaini-type target man role.

Central defenders, on the other hand, are actually quite rarely seen doing defensive work which requires any thought. An awful lot of jobs they do could be done by any player of top-level fitness and vague defensive competence, but it’s in the moments where genuine defensive nous is required that they can be shown up as chumps.

Smalling, in these moments, can admittedly be hit and miss. However, he’s also had moments this season which colour fans’ perception of him without those moments being a meaningful reflection of his quality as a player.

In the opening minutes of United’s recent match against Southampton, a loose ball moved in Smalling’s general direction, bobbling at a decent pace to his right. He spread his arms wide, circled around it, presumably to usher it back either to his goalkeeper or to right-back Eric Bailly. The word ‘presumably’ is used, because the trajectory of the ball didn’t carry it to either player, Southampton forward Nathan Redmond instead nipping in to pick it up.

Fortunately for Smalling, Redmond’s touch was heavy and the ball was cleared by another United defender, but it was a bizarre moment of ill-decision from the centre-back. The most likely explanation is that he was jumpy and wanted to project calm, and focussing on that rather than his surroundings. That’s not a good sign, of course, but it’s an aspect of Smalling as a player which is put under the spotlight by the system. It’s more of a reflection of how the centre-back responds to pressure than it is a reflection of his defensive awareness in general.

Smalling settled into that game and he settled into United’s Europa League final too, the deep defensive system that United used for the vast majority of that game playing in his favour. He attempted as many tackles and interceptions as he did block shots (2), a fairly good indication of a defender allowed to play on the back foot and with some decent protection in front of them.

This is why Chris Smalling is a case study in how we judge central defenders. In a role which suits him, he is perfectly reasonable and even quite good; in a role which does not, he can look quite bad. That doesn’t affect his overall quality as a player, it’s largely a reflection of his suitability to that specific job. You wouldn’t play David Silva as a target man – don’t expect Chris Smalling to perform well as something he’s not either.


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