I'm not sure in all my years covering Roma that I've seen a transfer quite like Chris Smalling, a move that went from eye-rolling to jaw dropping in a matter of weeks really. Seriously, take a look back at our tête-à-tête with our Manchester United colleagues at The Busby Babe. While they were quick to praise certain aspects of his game, they didn't struggle to list his flaws either:
He’s also maybe the worst player on the ball I’ve seen in my time watching United. He spent some of his early years playing right-back, and he’s mobile, so he looks like he should be able to bring the ball out of the back, but when he does it is a terrifying sight (and not in a good way). Despite his age and experience, he is still error prone as well. Three good games on the trot, and you’re thinking, “We’ve got ourselves a player here,” and then out of nowhere a complete brain freeze that leads to a goal. Then his confidence goes, and now he’s stressing you out for the next month every time the ball gets near him.
At best United fans were indifferent towards Smalling back in August, while at worst they were laughing at Roma for thinking Smalling would be anything but a catastrophe. And when coupled with their other Premiership dealings (Davide Zappacosta and Henrikh Mkhitaryan), Roma ran the risk of becoming a laughing stock.
Smalling was seen as a well-intentioned but mistake prone player at this point in his career, but through the first half of the season we've seen, what, maybe three or four unforced errors from him?
Not only has Smalling been excellent, he's been remarkably consistent. So much so that Roma have presumably been locked in behind-the-scenes negotiations to secure Smalling's services permanently, with Gianluca Petrachi attempting to whittle down United's rumored €20 million asking price.
With Roma offering a rumored €15 million for Smalling, most of us believed it was only a matter of time before the two sides hammered out a deal for the 30-year-old centerback, but thanks to his stellar play the past four months things have changed. Dramatically.
Not only was England CT Gareth Southgate at Friday's match at the San Siro to scout Smalling for a potential return to the national team, but United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said in no uncertain terms that he expects Smalling to return to Manchester next season. And we haven't even mentioned the unsubstantiated rumors that Arsenal might try to steal Smalling from Roma altogether.
Needless to say, Smalling's standing in the game has changed substantially since August, but how much weight should we give to Solskjaer's claim? Ole was simply answering a one-off question from an English reporter and, in the very next breath, reiterated the reasons why Smalling was loaned in the first place—he was never going to be first choice for United.
In essence we have three issues at play here. First and foremost, what does Chris want? Based on outward appearances he's enjoying his time in Rome, and he's certainly taken to the league tactically speaking, but will the overt racism displayed in certain corners of Italy turn him off of life in Serie A? Will his family want to return to more familiar settings? Does he miss gray skies and dry humor?
Secondly, just how much clout does Ole actually have at Old Trafford? He's only in his first full-season as United's manager and has led them to a distant fifth place so far. Does he have enough influence to dictate the club's transfers? And for that matter, is retaining a 30-year-old defender really a top priority for the club?
Which brings us to the third, final, and perhaps most obvious point: what does United want? Are they in a position to turn down a potential €20 million on what was a redundant asset for them? Are they willing to gamble that Solskjaer can replicate Paulo Fonseca's formula for Smalling success?
This isn't an easy knot to untie, but if you think about it, it's really all Smalling's fault. If he just showed up and sucked like United fans expected, this would be an easy decision. But no, he had to go and become arguably the best defender in Italy, setting us all up for a massive summer disappointment.
Despite Ole's assertions, this will ultimately come down to money. United want it and Roma can (hopefully) supply it.
Smalling has been a revelation for Roma, and they would be wise to exhaust all options to keep him.