Is Chris Smalling exposed in Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation?

Swansea City's Bony challenges Manchester United's Smalling during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford in Manchester

During a trophy laden career with Manchester United we barely heard a peep out of Paul Scholes. The majestic midfielder opted to do his talking on the pitch but could not get away quick enough when the final whistle had been blown, shunning the glitz and glamour that began to engulf modern football during the 1990s.

However, ever since he hung up his boots the 39-year-old has not stopped piping up in the media, all too eager to offer a sound bite and Scholes’ criticism of his former side has been damning. The ex-England international who was an integral member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign has not taken kindly to the new era.

Welcomed back as a coach towards the tail end of last season, he has not minced his words and openly questioned plenty of decisions that have been made over the course of the summer. With the 3-5-2 not too far away from the topic of conversation at Old Trafford, the latest players to feel the sharp side of Scholes’ tongue are the defenders.

Chris Smalling was pinpointed, with Scholes suggesting he was left “exposed” in Louis Van Gaal’s system, which consists of a flat back three and two wing backs in defence. But are the former England international’s comments justified, or is his latest quip harsh on the 24-year-old?

Smalling, like many of his colleagues heralded the preferred system of their manager during pre-season, which came as no surprise as the entire squad is desperate not to be deemed surplus to requirements by the authoritative former Oranje boss. But any optimism was washed away by Swansea last weekend as they recorded an unlikely 2-1 victory at the Theatre of Dreams.

The blame for the first goal seemed to be laid at the door of the formation itself, with questionable decision making and a lack of communication a constant thorn in United’s side which allowed Ki Sung-yueng to slot home.

However, Smalling’s duel success rate was impressive during the encounter. He was unbeaten in the air and won seven aerial duels, suggesting that Scholes’ suggestion that he was bettered “physically” by Wilfried Bony was not true.

The Ivory Cost centre-forward is a powerful opponent and coming off second best to him is by no means something to be ashamed of, but when the ball was there to be won Smalling emerged victorious with his two tackles, on both occasion off of Bony’s toe.

Fielded as the central defender of three Smalling was, however, hesitant at times . He is naturally drawn towards the right when further up the pitch as he is right footed and has also played at right back on a number of occasions.

But, in truth, failure to cement a role in the centre or on the right has proved detrimental to his development. Smalling was involved in just one event on the left flank, with his lack of cover on that side detrimental for the opener, when smooth interchanges unpicked the defence with ease.

As the central player in the three the onus is on your shoulders to marshal and lead the line. But Smalling does not possess the leadership skills to play centrally and was only fielded there due to a lack of options. Tyler Blackett lined up on the left, with Phil Jones on the right so it is difficult to wholly judge the trio on one game, when only the latter was in his most natural role.

Positional play is paramount to the system and becoming attracted to the ball or pulling wide will be costly.

Decent enough in possession, Smalling is capable of moving the ball wide to either of the centre-backs, but when he was needed to be more adventurous, playing longer balls into the opponent’s half, he often failed to find his target.

There were positives to take from the performance and Smalling has shown that he has the potential to grow into the system, but he lacks the natural characteristics that are central to it in the form of communication and organisational talent. To dismiss his capabilities after one competitive fixture seems harsh though and against Sunderland Smalling should look more comfortable now that he has a more experienced player to his left in Marcos Rojo.

Manchester United sign Marcos Rojo

Van Gaal has opted to use the formation to fit his attacking talent into the squad, but at the back it simply does not suit the men at his disposal. As Scholes admitted the word “potential” often crops up in reference to Smalling. He still possesses it and may improved but United need defenders for the here and now.

With the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand not there to hold his hand, Smalling will need to walk as part of a back three before he can run. Meanwhile, United can ill afford to wait for his learning curve to straighten out.

Sam Long
Sam Long


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