Roma defender Chris Smalling will have mixed feelings when he plays at Old Trafford for the first time in nearly two years tonight.
After a decade at Manchester United – winning five major trophies, including two Premier League titles – the place undoubtedly has many fond memories for the 31-year-old, but he could be forgiven for wondering what could have been. He may even think he should still be with the club, and it will certainly be strange playing for an empty Stretford End for the first time.
Smalling has endured an injury-hit second season in the Italian capital, but returned to fitness last weekend, just in time for his former club’s visit to the Europa League semi-finals.
Chris Smalling returns to Old Trafford tonight as part of Paulo Fonseca’s Roma side
Smalling wins the Premier League trophy in 2011 and 2013 – United’s last two titles
Smalling celebrates Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal in the Europa League final victory over Ajax in 2017
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Gareth Southgate may have thought he was redundant, but Smalling is an essential part of Roma coach Paulo Fonseca’s team. Roma played in the middle of a back three, losing just three of the 18 games (16 percent) Smalling played this season but struggled without him.
Their pursuit of a top four spot has seriously failed since Smalling was injured in late January, with six Serie A losses in their last 13 games, leaving them in sixth place and 11 points behind in fourth place. Roma have lost nine of the 28 games Smalling has missed (32 percent) and only their Europa League run has kept Fonseca on track.
Fonseca will therefore be very happy with Smalling back and hopes he can replicate his form from last season. Considered one of the best defenders in Serie A in 2019/20, the Englishman convinced Roma to turn his loan into a permanent loan for £ 13.5 million.
However, this season has been much more challenging for Smalling. In addition to the pandemic and a succession of injuries – knee, biceps and thigh – his wife and son were the victims of a shocking armed robbery in their villa south of Rome two weeks ago. The invaders left with £ 100,000 worth of jewelry and luxury watches, leaving his family ‘shocked’.
Smalling said his family was ‘shocked’ but ‘unharmed’ after a shocking armed robbery at their home in Italy (photo: wife Sam Cooke, 35, Smalling, and son Leo, two)
Smalling provided a positive update on Twitter after the terrifying ordeal
The young family (pictured) moved permanently to Italy after Smalling joined Roma
Smalling has previously spoken about how well he and his former glamor model wife Sam Cooke have established themselves well in Italy since their first move to Rome on loan in 2019. If he was happy with how life started in Italy, he won’t be. happy with how it ended in Manchester.
After a brilliant start under Solskjaer that gave the Norwegian the permanent job, United’s 2018/19 season finally fell apart, with eight defeats in Smalling’s last 10 games – including heavy and embarrassing defeats against Everton and Cardiff (his last appearance at Old Trafford). . He was made a scapegoat that summer when United set out to rebuild their defense around Harry Maguire’s £ 80m signing.
Maguire also took Smalling’s place in the England team leading up to the 2018 World Cup, as Southgate tried to promote what he considered Maguire’s superior ball skills. He is also three and a half years younger than Smalling, which has undoubtedly played a role in the decisions of both Solskjaer and Southgate.
Smalling always divided opinions during his time at United. He hired Premier League scouts while excelling for non-league Maidstone United as a teenager, and was soon picked up by Roy Hodgson at Fulham in 2008. Just 18 months later, despite having made only a handful of appearances at Craven Cottage, Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough to pay Fulham £ 10 million to sign the then 20-year-old.
From 2010 until Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, he slowly built Smalling and Phil Jones into the potentially world-class defenders he saw. Few then doubted Fergie’s verdict as Smalling played roles in the 2011 and 2013 titles backing up Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand’s top pick.
Smalling during the 4-0 defeat to Everton in April 2019 (left) – and with Fulham in 2010 (right)
Ferguson’s departure was a turning point for any United player and fan – as it has been for English football – and a succession of poor leadership appointments and signings has left the club unable to win a league title since then. Unfortunately for Smalling, like Jones, he symbolized the lack of world-class quality in this era of failure. He showed promise, had spells when he looked like he was really going to be the player Ferguson imagined, but never lived up to that promise in the end.
It’s not all Smalling’s fault, of course. If Ferguson had stayed a few more years, he might have developed into a world-class defender who scooped countless trophies. Instead, he had executives like Louis van Gaal, who infamously forgot his name at a press conference.
Ironically, Van Gaal showed more confidence in Smalling than Solskjaer, Jose Mourinho or David Moyes – he played 55 games under the Dutchman in 2015-16, comfortably his most ever in a season – but named him Mike Smalling for the watching world in 2015 the hole in the shape of a Fergie only looked bigger.
Injuries were also a constant thorn in Smalling’s side and no doubt hindered his progress. It only seems fair then that he is fit to get another chance to play at Old Trafford and show Solskjaer what he is missing. Ultimately, he will be remembered by United fans as a defender who was good, but not quite good enough.
Louis van Gaal introduced Smalling as ‘Mike’ during a press conference in 2015 (photo)
Solskjaer (right) let Smalling loose in 2019, building his defense around Harry Maguire