News that Rio Ferdinand could be out for the season hasn’t been met with the level of disappointment by many United fans that you’d expect.
While the loss of arguably the world’s best centre back is a massive blow there’s a feeling among many Reds that it needn’t be a devastating one.
The reason for the underlying optimism is a certain Christopher Lloyd Smalling who exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations with a series of assured performances at the heart of United’s defence.
Watching Smalling playing for Fulham last season, I was a little sceptical as to why we’d signed him to be perfectly honest as in the few games I saw him in, he looked a little shaky to say the least. What I, in my infinite stupidity failed to do was watch him over any extended period of time, just simply the occasional game here and the odd highlight there before making a negative assumption.
Smalling has fitted into the defence when called upon with consummate ease, displaying the confidence and ability to move the ball forward you’d associate with Rio Ferdinand. Smalling’s pace and physical presence make him a daunting prospect for any forward to face and he’s shown he’s more than adept at tackling and winning aerial battles.
Smalling has a composure on the ball which belies his inexperience, yet unlike other defenders most notably Ferdinand, who have that same style, his play never seems perfunctory. That’s not to say that Smalling is at the same level as Ferdinand, it would be daft to suggest such a thing, but there can be little or no doubt that he’s certainly living up to the moniker of Ferdinand’s heir apparent.
Smalling’s rise to the summit of club football has been nothing short of awe-inspiring as a man who a mere two years ago was plying his trade in the Ryman league is now first choice for a team chasing the treble.
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The concern I have is that while Smalling has gone from non-league to England class in barely two years, he’s still a relative novice in the top flight, who ideally was expected to be United’s third, fourth of even fifth choice centre back this season.
Don’t get me wrong as Chicharito has so ably shown top flight experience isn’t the be all and end all when you’ve got such an abundance of talent, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact a lot’s being asked of a player who’s barely reached 20 Premier League appearances.
Unlike a striker who can miss three chances but score one and still be a hero, if a defender makes just one error in a game, it can prove costly.
With the current United defensive injury problems reaching crisis levels, Ferguson has little choice but to turn to Smalling. With both John O’Shea and Rafael out for at least a few weeks, then surely Wes Brown will be required to fill the right back role.
Jonny Evans is thought to have a strong chance of being fit for the Bolton game this weekend, but here is where one of the main problems lie when it comes to playing Smalling. In an ideal world Smalling would be used sparingly, perhaps even just as cover for Evans and Vidic who played together more than admirably during United’s 11 game clean sheet record breaking run in 2008/09.
Yet since then Evans has been on downward trajectory and other than a few minor glimpses of the defender once considered the most exciting at the club, some even rated him higher than Gerard Pique when they were both fringe players, he’s become something of a worry to say the least.
It’s now got to the point where if Evans and Smalling are both fit, then it surely has to be the former Fulham man who’s preferred such is the level of unreliability you’d associate with the Irishman.
Nemanja Vidic is expected to return after Saturday’s game and take his place in the defence for the following week’s trip to Upton Park.
With a fit Vidic, and no Rafael or O’Shea you’d expect Brown to occupy the right back and either Smalling or Evans be asked to partner the United skipper.
The thought of Jonny Evans being in defence at Upton Park again is almost not worth thinking about as watching him make Carlton Cole look like Eric Cantona in the freezing cold a few months ago was arguably the nadir of any away trip I’ve ever been on.
It now seems inevitable that Smalling is going to be called upon for a series of games which could make or break United’s entire season. Yet is that really the best thing for both player and club?
Against both Liverpool and Marseille Smalling has shown signs that he’s not as infallible as everyone once thought. I’m not criticising him, merely pointing out an observation that I’m sure many other Reds have noticed.
In the game at Anfield, Smalling was one of United’s better defenders- or at least less bad ones- I know that’s the same thing, but if you think about it there’s a different meaning.
In the game against Arsenal Smalling was immense while the in the Champion’s league after a somewhat nervy start he gradually looked a little more composed.
The point is that Smalling is currently serving his apprenticeship at Old Trafford, he’s shone brightly and impressed everyone but are we asking too much of him to be a first choice centre back for possibly the rest of the season?
Evans and Brown may have looked shaky at times, but unlike Smalling they’ve been involved in both title run-ins and big Champion’s league games a number of times. The general consensus among United fans is to stick with Smalling until Rio returns- or if that’s not forthcoming, until the end of the season.
Smalling has undoubtedly shown he is the real deal, and alongside Vidic his extra pace and composure is the perfect compliment.
However if he should show signs of the pressure getting to him then would giving Brown or even the much-maligned Evans another chance be such a bad idea?
Everyone was shocked when Ferguson chose Evans ahead of Smalling against Liverpool in the FA Cup, yet the defender proved his detractors wrong with a solid point.
As always I’m keen to hear your thoughts. Please comment below and let me know if I’ve gone off the deep end yet again or actually have a valid point?