When my journey as a football fan began some 20 years ago (give or take) I naturally gravitated towards Manchester United. After all, they were the biggest team so there was always a good chance a neophyte like me would hitch myself to their wagon. With stars like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and my man Ruud van Nistelrooy, I was riding high as part-time fan of the Red Devils.
But, as you may have guessed, my interest soon waned and turned towards Serie A and Roma, so you could imagine my surprise when United gradually started to slip down the Premiership ranks, lagging behind the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and even Tottenham.
From time to time over the years Roma would be connected to some Manchester miscreant in the papers and thanks to my ignorance of all things United, I was never sure how to digest those rumors, but they were just that, rumors, so it didn’t matter. However, now that Roma have actually acquired someone from the Theater of Dreams, I thought it best to reach out to the experts, our colleagues at The Busby Babe.
Before we get into Smalling, United have just shipped out three players to Italy, took a swing at Paulo Dybala and invested huge money into Maguire, what are your expectations for this season?Are United on the path to reclaiming their glory years?
On a path, yes, hopefully. But I’m not expecting much glory this season. We’re clearly in a rebuilding phase now, and even though we’ve heard that more than once since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it seems genuine this time. There are several senior players that have been either moved on or sidelined, and for better or for worse, Solskjaer has decided how he wants the team to play and is putting his faith in young players to execute that vision. The defense is improved finally, and the attack is hugely exciting, even if we’re a bit thin and very young up top. Midfield is a big issue, because outside of Paul Pogba, our other options are borderline relegation-quality, but I’m willing to look at this season as the first stage of a rebuild. It won’t always be pretty, but I’m prepared to be patient. I reserve the right to retract all of this and become hysterical if we draw or lose on Saturday.
Okay, now onto Smalling. Tell us a bit about him: what does he do well? where does he struggle?
Well, let’s start with the good, shall we? A couple of years ago, Smalling was voted the player’s player of the season. He has, at various times over the last five years, been United’s best defender for months at a time. He ended last season as first choice alongside Victor Lindelöf. He’s quick, he’s strong in the tackle, he’s good in the air defensively, and he’s now hugely experienced. Under Louis van Gaal, when the team played an extremely risk-averse style, he played the best football of his career. Don’t ask him to do anything he’s not comfortable with, and you’ll get a solid defender.
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.
Going along with that, Roma’s new manager, Paulo Fonseca, favors an uptempo, high pressing system that requires center backs with touch and speed. How do you see Smalling fitting into such a system?
Oh dear. Again, when it comes to speed, few players will beat Smalling on the ground. His positioning when he’s on form also is usually good. When United have played a high pressing game, Smalling is good at getting tight to the attackers and making it difficult for them to turn. Now, the part about “touch”....best of luck.
Smalling has made over 200 appearances for United, so it clearly wasn’t all bad, yet he’s making a lateral move to another Europa League club (Yay, us!) on a season long loan, so what’s caused his standing to slip among the club and supporters?
He just isn’t good enough on the ball for a modern center back, particularly for the style our current manager wants to play. Smalling has been at United for a decade, but hasn’t progressed nearly as much as he should have, given the promise he showed early in his career. There could be a very good player in there, but at 29, he’s unlikely to iron out those errors now.
Finally, on a scale from 1-10, one being impossible, ten being a guarantee, what are the chances this loan greases the wheels for a Pogba to Roma transfer?
10/10. Get those POGBA 6 kits pre-ordered now.
Big thanks to Brent and the Busby Babe for their insight.