The setting was perfect for a fitting revenge- The Eithad Stadium in Lower Manchester. The crowd was distinctly divided into two different halves- the away crowd was subjugated to the corners of the stadium, while the home crowd sang in full flow. City looked to be the more threatening side, showing signs more better penetration. United struggled to break down a City defense as the game looked more midfield dominated than ever. And it seemed something out of the ordinary was needed. And it ended up happening when United’s Chris Smalling was brandished a second yellow card for a foul on James Milner. This allowed City a passage to a win, but United fought valiantly and went down fighting. The 23-year old Englishman was deemed as ‘useless’ and ‘a waste of space’ after a truly embarrassing performance.
Much like the club itself, Smalling has used that disappointment and criticism as a catapult to become a better player. And he hasn’t looked back since. Right now, he’s considered to be one of the best defenders in the Premier League– such is the amount of willingness he has shown to comeback after hitting level ground.
After the letting down at City that day, the feeling that Smalling won’t be anything more than a fork stuck in the road became strong. People began to wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson was right in bringing him in from Fulham in order to fill in the boots of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. There were strong doubts regarding his once praised abilities and as to whether he’d be able to fulfill his laded potential ever.
He belongs to that rare breed of footballers who won’t sink into depression after poor performances or after they’ve been bashed by the fans. This rare breed, which has a knack for defying the odds to do well in their careers, consists of players like Franck Ribery, Nani, Carlos Bacca and playing wise we can include Smalling in that list too. Not going by how humble his life has or hasn’t been, Smalling has proved people and his detractors wrong very well.
This season, Smalling has won 54% of his duels and his tackling success rate stands at 55 percent which is rather impressive. He has made 61 clearances and 19 interceptions and most of his clearances have come from inside the box too.
He now seems to have a different kind of an aura around him. That confidence and composing swagger that sets him apart from the rest of the United squad.
He’s seen commanding the players and putting them into position, keeping the defensive line organized enough such that penetration is low. Daley Blind, who is the kind of a player who is more efficient on the ball rather than off it may have been good too, but Smalling has played a part in keeping him disciplined too. Smalling has handled the physical aspect of defending very well while Blind has been adept in the technical aspect of it.
All in all, it’s been one hell of a season for Smalling. He’s shown qualities Sir Alex once expected him to and rightly so, handing him the captaincy band won’t be a surprise in the future.
Stats via Squawka.com