One of the unluckiest people on the planet. His name: Chris Smalling. (Well, I would also accept John McClane from Die Hard or Scrat from Ice Age). After his astonishing debut season at Roma, in which he played 37 games and scored three goals, Smalling has dealt with one injury after another. After the 2019-2020 season, Roma spent nearly the entire spring and summer trying to purchase Smalling outright from Manchester United. And while the deal finally went through, Smalling has never been the same player.
After that fatal day when Smalling officially signed his contract at AS Roma (October 2020, just before the transfer deadline), he has only played 27 competitive games for the club, being sidelined for most of the time due to a variety of muscle injuries. Last season was just plain misery while the current one hasn’t been too kind to Chris as well—I’m surprised the man didn’t break his finger while signing the paperwork.
Smalling was supposed to be one of the starting center-backs in Mourinho’s formation. Our oldest and most experienced CB (somewhere in Rome, Fazio is crying), a steady force alongside spring chickens like Ibañez, Kumbulla, and Gianluca ‘still rough around the edges’ Mancini. It was deemed a good combo, but so far Smalling has played approximately 130 minutes in Serie A and two full games in the mighty Europa Conference League.
And surprise, surprise, Roma has been leaking goals in Serie A and Europe. Even though we hired Jose Mourinho in order to be a more defensive unit with fewer brainfart, Roma has only one clean sheet in its last seven games and six losses so far including a 6-1 massacre in Norway. How ironic. It seems Mou isn’t a big fan of Kumbulla while Mancini hasn’t turned into Materazzi 2.0 just yet. Ibañez has clearly improved but let’s not forget he’s still 22-years-old.
Against Venezia, Mourinho threw away his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation, opting for a three-men-defense because there was literally no single left-back available. Kumbulla got another chance to prove himself but looked insecure once again and not 100% fit. And if Mancini also starts sleepwalking on the pitch, then you know you’re going to have a rough time.
But rejoice brethren! The fallen knight has returned! Smalling has been injured since the beginning of October but is nearing full fitness and aims to be called up for the Genoa match on Sunday, AKA Shevchenko’s first official game as a trainer of the Grifoni. Sheva himself has scored a ton load of goals in Serie A so he’ll want his Genoa to play an attacking game. He has quite a few dangerous possibilities upfront, too, like former Giallorosso Destro and the former Laziale Pandev and Caicedo. So Roma will need Smalling at his best—as a starter or as a sub—when they have to defend a narrow lead.
The return of Smalling could solve a lot of problems. Not all of them, of course, but at least Mourinho has more options in the heart of the defense: Smalling and Ibañez in defense might allow Mancini to get his head together or the bench or perhaps even transitioning to life as a defensive midfielder; Smalling and Mancini in central defense with Ibañez and left-back, which would give Karsdorp a free pass to run forward; or a 3-4-1-2 with Mancini, Smalling, and Ibañez so Jose doesn’t have to use his ‘scapegoat’ Kumbulla.
If ever there was a time Roma needed the 2019 Smalling, it's now. The race for the top four is truly on and both Atalanta and Lazio have already surpassed Roma. Both our defense and attack need to shift into gear or we risk throwing away this whole season by New Year.
The next four games are certainly doable—Genoa, Zorya, Torino, and Bologna—but then Roma will entertain Inter at home (finally that long-awaited win vs a top club?) before finishing off December against CSKA Sofia, Spezia, Atalanta, and Sampdoria. Roma needs a strong finish in 2021 so we’re still in the hunt for Champions League spots and uh, Conference League glory, yay! Hey, you need to take everything you can get these days, right?
With Smalling returning, Roma can discover its guide, its beacon of trust. Even though he’s one of the oldest players on the squad, he’s arguably (and ironically) the quickest and most agile of our CB’s. Now Mourinho needs to work his magic and make his defense finally click. Roma has missed Smalling for way too long now. That wait is finally over. No more excuses this time.
Welcome back, Chris. It’s a Smalling world after all.