Centre-back has survived by default while a flurry of signings have come and gone, leaving issues unaddressed, writes Richard Jolly
Chris Smalling's longevity an indictment of Manchester United
Landmarks may seem just a number but the facts and figures can convey a wider significance.
Chris Smalling previewed Sunday’s meeting with Everton by noting that he would join some big names in Manchester United’s 300 club. The 59th joined one in particular: Smalling is now tied in 58th in United’s all-time appearance list with Nemanja Vidic.
Smalling should overhaul his old captain at Bournemouth on Saturday. If there seems something fundamentally wrong in that, the numbers in themselves are not a measure of merit.
Brian McClair was a wonderful servant, a selfless, versatile and underrated player, but it still jars to see he played one more game for United than George Best. Smalling has already left Cristiano Ronaldo in his wake.
He nearly brought up his milestone in ignominious fashion. He collected a caution for ploughing through Richarlison. He ought to have got a second for fouling the Brazilian, though he did concede a penalty.
He should have got a third red card to join those in the 2014 Manchester derby, when Louis van Gaal branded him “stupid”, and in the 2016 FA Cup final, giving him the unwanted distinction of becoming the first Englishman to be sent off in the famous fixture.
Given Vidic’s disciplinary difficulties, perhaps it is the wrong stick with which to beat Smalling. The Serb and his long-time partner Rio Ferdinand were United’s last great centre-backs, candidates for a place in their all-time XI.
It is more than four years since both left. They have never properly been replaced. Smalling has filled a vacuum at times.
Apart from a period under Van Gaal, he has rarely been the cornerstone of the defence. Instead, he has been Old Trafford’s great survivor, and if that is part of the secret to longevity, his triple century is an indictment of United.
Perhaps comparisons with Vidic are unfair. The Serb’s spiritual successor, the inheritor of his unofficial title of the division’s best centre-back, is now Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk.
Smalling looked at his most promising for United in his debut season, 2010/11, when paired with Vidic: like Van Dijk now, the Serb was so good that his sidekicks tended to impress.
Now Smalling instead represents United’s confused thinking, their descent into mediocrity, their inability to find a defence remotely of the stature of Alex Ferguson’s best.
He has survived by default while a flurry of signings have come and gone, leaving issues unaddressed.
Rewind five months to the FA Cup final and the entire defence were Ferguson’s signings; two, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, were bought as wingers.
United have spent the best part of £700 million (Dh3.3 billion) in the transfer market since Ferguson retired. Jose Mourinho’s summer gripes about their unwillingness to sign a centre-back helps explain Smalling’s status as the first choice.
So, though, does the way Eric Bailly has fallen from favour. After defeating Everton, Mourinho bemoaned United’s inability to keep a clean sheet. As with the reluctance to buy, his complaints would have more credibility if he were to pick the best centre-back at his disposal.
Perhaps, in time, Victor Lindelof, who excelled against Juventus, will graduate to that status. In the meantime, the young Swede deserves the benefit of the doubt. Smalling has not for some time.
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But ever willing, never quite good enough, fitter than Phil Jones, he has lingered on, extending the interregnum between Vidic’s decline and the arrival of United’s next world-class centre-back and no doubt going further up the list of United’s all-time appearance makers.
It is worth scanning it: Vidic, Ferdinand, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, the pillars of Ferguson’s sides, are far from the only defenders in the 300 club. Men like John O’Shea and Wes Brown were squad players for much of their United careers.
But at his best, each was a top-class performer in a champion team. At other times, each understudied the undroppable.
Smalling shows how times have changed, and not for the better.