Thomas Vermaelen is now a Barcelona player. But only because Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal rejected Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger’s proposal of a player-swap deal involving the Belgium international and United’s Chris Smalling. The veteran Dutch coach may live to regret that particular decision.
Smalling arrived at Old Trafford from Fulham back in 2010. Back then he was seen by Sir Alex Ferguson as an unpolished diamond - a little rough around the edges, but full of potential.
But four years down the line and Smalling has, by and large, failed to convince at Old Trafford.
Smalling: Athlete rather than footballer
The England international has had his moments, and it’s fair to say that being played out of position at right-back by Ferguson and David Moyes has harmed his development as a central defender, but the technical abilities that should be in place by now simply aren’t there.
Smalling, as an athlete, is superb. He’s 6ft 4in tall and very quick, which allows him to recover well and stand toe-to-toe with the most physically imposing strikers.
But when in possession he can be a disaster waiting to happen. His passes often go astray, he has a tendency to get caught out of position, while his balance also leaves a lot to be desired.
Smalling is far being a cultured centre-back like Rio Ferdinand was in his pomp, while he’s not quite the ferociously brave Nemanja Vidic either.
Of course, it took Ferdinand a little bit of time to cut the silly errors from his game, but the former England international’s technique - even from a young age - was evident.
Wenger's interest was a surprise
That Wenger was so keen to sign a player with such little assurance in possession came a surprise. Perhaps, like Ferguson four years ago, he felt this was a player worth persisting with because of his physical attributes.
And no doubt the same thought process has gone through Van Gaal’s mind over the past few weeks.
Van Gaal was not prepared to take risk
The Dutch coach, however, is still getting to know his players - and it’s perfectly understandably that he was keen to avoid running the risk of axing a potential future star, while strengthening a direct Premier League rival in the process.
But unless we see some dramatic changes in Smalling - playing in a back-three could bring out the best in him, admittedly - this feels like a wasted opportunity.
Vermaelen, despite having been on the Arsenal bench for the past 18 months, would have been an upgrade on Smalling.
Watch: Chris Smalling in action
Barcelona only sign technically-gifted players
There’s a reason why Barcelona have snapped up the Belgium international for £15 million. The Catalan giants don’t sign players unless they’re comfortable and assured in possession.
One thing’s for sure, then: they'd never contemplate the idea of signing Smalling.
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