Gareth Southgate has admitted he was wrong to drop Chris Smalling from the England squad in 2017 and has opened the door on a recall this summer.
In just three months’ time the Three Lions boss will sit down with assistant coach Steve Holland at St George’s Park and decide on which players he will take to Euro 2020.
At the start of the campaign, few would have predicted that Smalling would be part of this conversation come June. Having fallen down the Manchester United pecking order and sent packing to Roma for the season, it wasn’t unfair to suggest Southgate would have had his gaze focused elsewhere.
Unwanted at Old Trafford, and not entirely desired in the Italian capital, Roma settled for Smalling after some of their more prominent targets proved too unrealistic to attain. Both Daniele Rugani and German Pezzella were above the Londoner on Paulo Fonseca’s summer wishlist, for example.
So, if Smalling was the contingency plan for Fonseca, then it has since proven inspired and almost revolutionary, as the Man Utd castaway has reinvented his reputation in the Eternal City and now presents Southgate a serious centre-back option for this summer’s competition.
Dropped by Southgate in 2017 because other defenders could “use the ball from the back” more fluently than Smalling, the England coach has now backtracked on those comments and paved the way for the 30-year-old to re-enter the international fold.
“I probably regretted the way of [relaying the message],” the England manager said. “By praising others for certain attributes there was [implied] criticism for Chris. It was my fault and it was unfair on him.
“I think he’s done well in Italy. He’s playing at another big club. He was obviously playing at a big club before. We’re watching everybody because we’ve got to make sure we make the right decision.
“I’ve never ruled anybody out. I think that would be wrong.”
Chris Smalling Football Index value May 2019: £0.22 (Buy)
Handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson a decade ago, Smalling has gone on to win five major trophies in the north west of England, including two Premier League titles. Naturally he was unimpressed with Southgate’s comments three years ago.
He explained at the time: “You don’t win every trophy bar the Champions League without being able to do everything a top defender needs to do. I don’t really feel like I need to prove anything to Gareth.”
Chris Smalling Football Index value March 2020: £0.64 (Buy)
Smalling — much like Phil Jones — drew fervent frustration from fans at Old Trafford in his latter years at the club, but the narrative has certainly shifted with the defender proving his worth at the Stadio Olimpico and forming a reliant part of Fonseca’s backline, as Roma chase a Champions League place.
And the numbers are there for all to see. Italian football prides itself on expert defending and Smalling has certainly ticked a few boxes. Of defenders in Serie A this term, Smalling has won the third-most aerial duels (78) and has only been successfully dribbled past on two occasions — for perspective, some of Southgate’s other centre-back options, including Harry Maguire (12), Joe Gomez (6) and Fikayo Tomori (5) have all been beaten by opponents by considerable margins.
Even more telling, though, is the improvement to Smalling’s passing range — the original criticism from Southgate — with the Londoner boasting a better pass accuracy than the above trio. Smalling (90.27%) betters each of Maguire (85.43%), Gomez (88.57%) and Tomori (87.32%) in that department.
He said he had nothing to prove, but this is damning evidence of a player unwilling to rest on his laurels.
Metrics can of course be deceiving at times and should never be used as the main barometer to judge players, but the above numbers are certainly telling, and a strong argument can now be made for Smalling to re-enter the England frame this summer.
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*You have to be 18+ and Gamble Aware to sign up to Football Index. Values correct at time of publishing – 22:30 05/03/2020.