Chris Smalling is my Roma player of the season, as things stand. His closest competitor is Edin Dzeko, and that’s probably about it. I would have put Amadou Diawara in the running, but another season of injuries and lack of continuity has put paid to Diawara’s claim. So it really falls down to Smalling, a player who’s been crucial to Roma’s success by any measure.
If you like stats, he’s regularly (and often by some distance, even over Diawara) the player who intercepts the most passes in the team. If you like tactics, you know those interceptions are crucial to how Fonseca’s Roma likes to turn defence into attack. If you like personality, Smalling has won everyone and their mother over in the city of Roma, while his on-pitch charisma often paves the way forward for teammates to keep confidence under even the most difficult of scorelines - not least of all central defensive partner Gianluca Mancini who, truth be told, has struggled (even if constantly improving) on defending for the best part of the season.
But where Smalling excels in reading the danger and aggressively cutting an opponent, he’s never been the best passer off the ball. And that’s exactly where Gianluca Mancini is a real talent. It’s also where England manager Gareth Southgate has come out, this week, to openly regret criticizing this part of Smalling’s game when Southgate left the defender out of his World Cup 2018 squad altogether. Southgate told BBC Sport:
“I said I probably regretted the way the message [came over]. By praising others for certain attributes, there was criticism for Chris.
”It was my fault and it was unfair on him. I think he’s done well in Italy. We’re watching everybody because we’ve got to make sure we make the right decision.
”I spoke to him when I left him out the squad and explained what I explained to everybody. Of course, because of the way it came out, there was little point - I wasn’t going to say anything that hadn’t already been said.”
Southgate is one of the many younger coaches of today who place importance on playing the ball from the backline. The aim being to draw out your opponents into closing down your back four (or three) players, so that bring even the deepest-defending opponents out of their cage and un-park the bus. With Chris Smalling in a Roma shirt, that hasn’t looked like a problem. However, Southgate will be aware that Smalling has found himself a club and coach who’s football does a good job of masking Smalling’s flaws.
When we first wrote about Fonseca Football last summer, we pointed out that Roma were finally bringing in a coach that could (ironically, given the transfer moves made at the time) have brought out the best in Kostas Manolas. With a short, compact team that emphasizes support for the man on the ball, you don’t even have to be a good or gutsy passer, you just have to know how to pass it 5 yards to the teammate (Pau Lopez, Mancini and/or Diawara) who can do that job for you.
That’s partly what’s helped Smalling re-find his career-high form in Rome; he’s been protected from doing the stuff he often doesn’t enjoy, giving him more time to focus on what he excels at. With Amadou Diawara in the team especially, Roma’s compact shape on the pitch has been freakishly metronomic; Roma almost always take up no more than an average 20-23 metres length of space on the pitch between all 11 players when Diawara is marshaling things in front of Smalling.
There have been exceptions of course; most notably the Fiorentina away game where Diawara was being shouted at by both Fonseca and Dzeko for different mistakes mid-match and, subsequently, the team’s shape stretched by 11 metres in the second half, leaving gaps that Roma still managed to plug on the day. They still walked off the pitch with a 4-1 victory on that day, but it shows just how influential Diawara’s confidence is to keeping the team moving as one.
On his regular days, the Guinean is a master of the time and space continuum itself. So keeping the spaces short for players like Smalling is a walk in the park for Diawara. The team has also kept their shape well when Mancini has played as a defensive midfielder, too (with only one real exception - Mancini’s bad day away to Atalanta).
And it’s not as if Smalling shuns the responsibility of working the ball up the pitch, either. When the match develops to a phase where the onus is on him to make a vertical pass up field, or drive the ball himself into space, he’ll do it. It just won’t always come off for him. But, for the most part, Smalling’s time is taken up by cutting out opposition passes, and that’s plenty good enough.
I doubt there’s anyone more surprised as loving Smalling’s stay in Rome than myself. I was initially in favour of the move to bring him to Roma, only because the deal was a nice piece of improvisation under the circumstances of a tight August deadline. But I’m heavily-biased for ball-playing defenders, and I’ve not often been a fan of straightforward stoppers; despite his great read of the game, that’s the kind of role-player Smalling is and the kind of player that Federico Fazio is now forcing himself to become to extend his own Roma career.
Both have an excellent and aggressive read of the game though, and that kind of intellect is a beautiful thing to see defensively. Even if, unlike Fazio, Smalling has the athletic ability to back up his own intellect. However, the covering Smalling’s had to do for teammates, and the criticism he’s now receiving for struggling to do it, is just a repeat of how defenders rarely get noticed for doing their job well, but are the first to be singled out when they fail to mop up for a teammate’s mistakes.
We’ve praised the Bruno Peres Renaissance this week, and rightly so. Every Roma player deserves support when turning their career around to do what they love. But it’s no coincidence Chris Smalling’s form has taken a hit, when playing alongside not just Aleksandar Kolarov, but now Bruno Peres and Bryan Cristante, too. All three players are prone to leave gaps behind them and their teammate exposed, with all three lacking either the stamina, awareness or simply the legs to plug the space.
When Chris Smalling only had to worry about the space behind Kolarov, Smalling rejuvenated the Serbian left back’s own career this season, in kind. But now having to decide between closing the distance to Peres (when Smalling plays on the right) and Cristante ahead of him, too, looks like asking too much of the Englishman. Those kind of nerves wear on any player as the game goes on, leading to Smalling’s recent form. The kind of form where he’s letting individual errors creep in at the end of games, that are no one else’s fault but his own.
Paulo Fonseca’s short-term answer has been to move Jordan Veretout (and most recently Gonzalo Villar) to playing as a makeshift right-back when Roma are on the ball, plugging the space in behind Peres so that Roma can afford to push both full-backs up field. But this approach still hasn’t solved Bryan Cristante’s interpretation of the game in midfield which, for all Cristante’s positives, is a problem Fonseca has to solve somehow.
All this to say: if Chris Smalling still somehow doesn’t make the England Euro 2020 squad this summer, it may be down to the bigger picture beyond his excellent individual season at the heart of Roma’s defence. I’m not up to date with how England play, but Southgate will be managing the very same questions as Fonseca in Rome.
Does England have the kind of ball-playing teammates that can keep Smalling’s job simple on the ball? And will England play with a heavy emphasis on transition football for their attacks like Roma, or not?
If the answer is yes, then you’re hard pressed to look for a better name than Chris Smalling. He’ll not only put your team back on the front foot, but keep them there.