For the first three months of the season, Manchester United were impressive defensively, and Chris Smalling was picked out as one of the best defenders in the Premier League, if not Europe.
However, after a poor run of form which has seen United drop out of the Champions League places, it may be time for the football world to rethink its assessment of the centre back.
With United keeping clean sheets in their first three Premier League games of the season, Smalling was heavily praised and talked about as being a key man in England’s Euro 2016 campaign. In recent weeks however, Smalling has looked more like a man who had just an outside chance of making the squad.
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At the start of the season, the 26-year-old struck up an excellent partnership with Daley Blind at centre back, a set up that often meant United looked comfortable in defence. But when the injuries built up for the Red Devils around the beginning of December, the changes in defence saw Louis van Gaal’s side become much more vulnerable at the back.
There has always been an element of Smalling being quite rash in his decision making, often when it comes to positioning and whether to make a tackle of not. The England man has also earned himself a reputation as someone constantly involved with so-called grappling from corners and free kicks.
There have been a couple of examples of this coming into play in recent weeks, one of which against Newcastle United in January when his wrestling match with Aleksandar Mitrovic resulted in a penalty for the Magpies in a match which eventually finished level.
He was also at fault for at least one of the goals against Norwich in the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in December, and it was his man, Lamine Kone, whose header led to Sunderland’s winning goal on Saturday. With so many mistakes, Smalling surely can’t be considered as a top centre back. He is no longer a youngster, and at 26, should have moved on from making those sorts of mistakes.
With Manchester United light on quality in the centre back department, Smalling will probably remain their first-choice, but he has a lot of work to do to make sure he’s the man for the long term. He definitely isn’t one of the best defenders in Europe.