Chris Smalling is surpassing expectations at the Stadio Olimpico and currently thriving in the heart of Roma’s defence. Who’d have thought it?
The unwanted Manchester United centre-back was sent packing to Serie A, and United fans barely batted an eyelid as the transfer went through.
Despite being cherry-picked by the great Sir Alex Ferguson in 2010, Smalling largely failed to fulfil his potential at ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. He ultimately became a symbol of frustration among tiring Red Devils.
Roma themselves hadn’t even considered Smalling a first-choice target, exploring other options prior to landing the Londoner, but the likes of Daniele Rugani proved too expensive, while Fiorentina refused to budge for German Pezzella.
That opened the door for Smalling to try his luck away from the Premier League spotlight, attempting to reignite a career that had stalled for years at Old Trafford.
Such was his stagnation in the North West that England boss Gareth Southgate even began looking elsewhere, dropping the 29-year-old in 2017 and not looking back since.
It therefore wasn’t remiss that most United fans thought Smalling’s temporary stint at Roma would be nothing to write home about. He was already written off. A mediocre loan spell appeared a foregone conclusion.
However, Smalling has refused to conform to expectations since relocating to Southern Europe. He’s dispelled all the preconceptions about his inconsistent defending and is looking at home in the Italian top-flight.
His brief sojourn on Italian soil has so far yielded rave reviews from those of a Giallorossi persuasion, with reports suggesting he has already sealed the Roma hierarchy’s stamp of approval, and that the board are now eager to thrash out terms over a permanent deal next summer.
That, of course, has transpired because of his imposing start in the capital. He has had big shoes to fill with defensive talisman Kostas Manolas leaving for Napoli over the summer, but Smalling has slotted into that role seamlessly.
His lion-hearted showings have culminated in a man-of-the-match performance during September’s 1-0 win over Lecce, and he recently scored his first goal while helping Roma to a 4-0 victory over Udinese, taking them to fourth.
Chris Smalling's game by numbers vs. Lecce:
100% aerial duels won
7 aerial duels won
1 take-on completed
Settling in well at Roma. pic.twitter.com/wj2i9mI9Bf
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 29, 2019
But it’s not just key individual performances that have caught the eye. His metrics have also been first-class. He has made more blocks than any Roma player in Serie A this season (eight), has the best aerials won per 90 minutes ratio (5.5) and is yet to be dribbled past. He also boasts the best passing accuracy for players to have made over two appearances (91.19%).
Smalling’s transition has been helped by the fact that he is a good fit for Paulo Fonseca’s system. The Portuguese coach prefers a high-line, which works well to accentuate Smalling’s speed and athletic attributes.
He may stand at a towering 6 ft 4 in, but there was a time when Ferguson deployed him at right-back for United because of his industry and speed.
In training sessions, he shows ability and versatility. He’s played in midfield in training. He’s an all-round player.
I think his time will come as centre back but while he’s playing so well at the moment, there’s no reason to change. He’s bringing good defensive stability to us and his pace has been a great bonus so we’ll just carry on.
– Ferguson on playing Smalling at right-back in 2011
This has, of course, not been entirely plain sailing for Smalling; there are still chinks to his armour and discernible weaknesses. It will take more than a handful of positive displays to earn the moniker catenaccio king, but the early signs are positive.
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And so, should he continue in this rich vein of form, would it perhaps be inconceivable to think that an England call-up is on the horizon? A return to the international reckoning for a player whose Three Lions career looked to have been abbreviated by inconsistent performances.
Euro 2020 is just around the corner, and Smalling will no doubt have one eye on ending a barren two-year absence from St George’s Park, but he will have to stamp out what got him into this position in the first place if he is to stand a chance: inconsistencies.
If he can continue on this current trajectory then surely Southgate can’t ignore him, and who knows, this may even prove the catalyst for a return to the Man Utd first-team – certain quarters have already hinted that he will indeed return to Old Trafford.
But, whichever way we dissect his early form, this Roma spell has thus far proven restorative and he deserves a nod of respect for seeking pastures new and attempting to resurrect his top-flight career.