Prior to his revitalisation at Roma, Chris Smalling was regarded as deadwood by Manchester United. A defender who - despite occasional flashes of brilliance - was never consistent enough to be considered a worthy successor to Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic. He was symbolic of how stale United had gotten, having spent nine years with the club without really achieving anything of note.
So you could forgive Roma fans if they reacted to the news of his arrival last summer with either indifference or mild disappointment. He seemed an inadequate replacement for Kostas Manolas, the ever-reliable centre-back who departed for Napoli earlier that window, not to mention that English players had a reputation of struggling to adapt to the Italian game.
In spite of this fact, Smalling became an indispensable player for Roma almost immediately, transforming himself from an inconsistent defender at Manchester United to one of Serie A’s more dependable ones almost overnight. Just how did such a transformation happen?
Perhaps the most obvious factor is that Smalling suits coach Paulo Fonseca’s style of play perfectly. Fonseca likes to employ a high defensive line, meaning Roma are vulnerable to runs in from behind. Since Smalling is a pacey and physical defender, he is capable of catching up with the sprinting opponent and muscling him off the ball.
Another factor - and maybe the most surprising one considering the reputation English players have - is that Smalling was almost made for Serie A. He reads the game brilliantly, which is an attribute far more important in the tactical Serie A than it is in the comparatively unpredictable Premier League. This - combined with his tenacity - has made him into one of the most effective defenders on the Peninsula.
The other contributing factor could be psychological. Smalling is regarded by some as being a confidence player. Playing in the Premier League - and particularly Manchester United - comes with a high level of expectation. A couple of bad games or even a mere mistake can make you the subject of derision on social media. Playing for Roma meant the limelight wasn’t on him as much, meaning that he could make mistakes without being slaughtered on Twitter, allowing him to retain the high level of confidence he has clearly demonstrated with his performances this season.
There seem to be a lot of problems at his parent club too, to the extent where he was almost unlucky to have spent so many years there. It can’t be a coincidence that maligned players such as Romelu Lukaku, Angel Di Maria, Ashley Young and Memphis Depay have all thrived since leaving Old Trafford. No wonder that Smalling sees his future away from United, with recent reports suggesting that he would take a pay-cut to make his time at Roma permanent.
Hopefully, a deal between Roma and Manchester United can be reached soon to ensure that happens. His defensive skills - as well as his experience - have proved vital for Fonseca’s Roma so far, and he would be a difficult man to replace should he not make the return to Trigoria.
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