This new season hasn’t been kind for Chris Smalling. And that’s putting it kindly. While Smalling started the first three league matches this year, he has missed every single match since then. That’s 19 games out of 23 (17 in Serie A and 6 in the Europa League). And in those first three games he did play, Roma only picked up one meager point against Salernitana, Hellas Verona, and Milan.
The team's performance has slightly improved throughout the season. Evnan Ndicka and Digo Llorente have stepped up, while Gianluca Mancini has played in almost all the matches, even while slightly injured. Even Bryan Cristante and Zeki Celik have joined the CB rotation in Mourinho’s 3-5-2 when necessary. But this is hardly an ideal situation. Ndicka will be absent in January and possibly a portion of February, and Marash Kumbulla is still recovering from the injury he suffered what feels like a long time ago, back in 1974.
Tiago Pinto hinted a new defender will probably come in the Winter Mercato. A loan? A cheap solution? A surprisingly big name like Dybala or Lukaku? Who knows.
Meanwhile, Smalling has been observing everything from the sidelines since September. Although the exact date of his return is uncertain, three months ago, we thought it was fairly soon, perhaps only a matter of three to four games. But it's December, and Smalling is still not fit, and his injury is causing a lot of anxiety. This has allegedly caused frustration for both Mourinho and the entire medical team.
The latest rumors say February is the new target for the long-awaited comeback of Smalling. February. That’s still nearly two months away. In Roma’s case two months without Ndicka and maybe 60% of Kumbulla. And almost half a year since Smalling suffered his original injury in the first place.
I have a feeling something in this process has gone terribly wrong. By the medical department for underestimating Smalling’s injury or not listening to him? By Chris himself, did he ignore the orders from the medical team? Has refusing treatments delayed his return?
It seems that there might be some tension between Mourinho and Smalling. Mourinho has been praising players like Mancini and Cristante, who rarely miss games due to injuries, but he has been criticizing a player without directly mentioning his name, and it could be Smalling. Though most of the matter is internal, it is clear that something has gone wrong between Mou and Smalling.
Of course, it could also be a tactic by Mourinho to motivate/persuade Chris, but this can also end badly. Smalling still has a contract until June 2025, so like it or not, we’re stuck with him for a while unless some club is crazy enough to take a gamble on a broken 34-year-old Smalling.
Let’s face it. There are no winners here. For months now, Roma has lost one of its most influential defenders, while Smalling is not getting any younger and already lost his place to the likes of Llorente and Ndicka. Even worse, if the new guy in January turns out to be a steal, then Smalling might simply be stuck on the bench or in the stands until his contract expires, especially if Mourinho remains after this season.
Let’s hope José and Chris can work this out. As soon as possible. Roma needs both of them. Together.
That being said, this tough road is far from over. Smalling has big problems ahead of him.