Of all the players who deserve credit from Manchester United's recent run of good form, Chris Smalling stands out for the impressive and unexpected manner in which he has bounced back from his red card against Manchester City last month.
The England international took a lot of stick - most it deserved - for his idiotic display at the Etihad Stadium, where he picked up two cheap bookings in quick succession to leave the Red Devils down to ten men, which effectively ended his side's chances of securing a positive result at the home of their fierce local rivals.
By that point many United fans had just about seen enough from Smalling, whose performances had steadily declined since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of the 2012-13 season.
The 25-year-old, who joined the Red Devils from Fulham in 2010, was criticised for continually suffering lapses in concentration, while his technique was often called into question. Furthermore, he made mistakes far too frequently.
The unconvincing performances continued during the early weeks of Louis van Gaal's reign, culminating in that disastrous performance against City.
But since then he's been transformed, joining the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young on the list of players who have improved since the departure of David Moyes. Perhaps that humiliating red card and the reaction from his current manager was the wake-up call he required to get his Manchester United career back on track.
His first game back came against Arsenal, where he was flanked by inexperienced duo Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett. Van Gaal assigned Smalling the task of guiding his two teammates at the heart of Manchester United's defence - and that's precisely what he did.
Wenger wanted Smalling
Smalling produced a composed and professional performance against the Gunners, whose manager Arsene Wenger had tried to sign him back in the summer.
There were many who were of the opinion that Manchester United would have been wise to cash-in on their unreliable centre-back, but Van Gaal trusted his gut feeling and the advice of his coaching staff and opted to keep the defender at Old Trafford.
That looked a mistake 39 minutes into the match against Manchester City; however, United's last three games indicate that Van Gaal may have pulled off another masterstroke.
Van Gaal was right
Smalling followed up his imperious display against Arsenal with another fine performance against Hull City at the weekend. But it was his display in last night's 2-1 win over Stoke City which should leave supporters convinced Van Gaal was absolutely right to keep him at Old Trafford instead of flogging him to Arsenal.
Ferguson proclaimed in February 2011 that Smalling and Jonny Evans would become Manchester United's first-choice central defensive partnership for years to come.
A few weeks back, that looked an awful prediction - but disillusioned United fans should have remembered that Ferguson is rarely wrong.
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