Having been deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, the England defender decided to try his luck in Serie A and is now back to his best
On Wednesday morning, it emerged in the Italian press that Roma were already working on a permanent deal for loan signing Chris Smalling.
That evening, the Manchester United-owned centre-half showed exactly why.
Smalling was immense as Roma romped to a 4-0 win at Udinese.
The England international’s central defensive partner, Federico Fazio, had been harshly dismissed just 30 minutes into the game – and with the visitors just a goal to the good at the time.
However, as well as holding the defence together for the remainder of the game, Smalling also netted Roma’s crucial second goal, slotting home at the back post after Udinese had failed to to clear a Jordan Veretout corner, thus becoming the first Englishman ever to score for the Giallorossi.
No player on the pitch won more aerial duels (six), made more blocks (two) or clearances (nine) than the 29-year-old, whom the Gazzetta dello Sport described as “an absolute totem of the defence”, as well as urging Roma to make his stay at the Stadio Olimpico permanent as soon as possible.
That may not prove quite so straightforward, though.
United’s head of development John Murtough, has been monitoring Smalling’s performances at Roma and he cannot but be impressed by what he has seen so far.
Since arriving in the Italian capital on August 30, Smalling has had a massive stabilising effect on a defence that was struggling to come to terms with the loss of star centre-half Kostas Manolas to Napoli.
Indeed, the Giallorossi conceded eight goals in their first four Serie A games of the season.
Smalling’s Serie A debut, against Atalanta on September 25, ended in a 2-0 defeat. However, Roma’s defence has been breached just twice in the five games that have followed, with three clean sheets playing a pivotal part in an unbeaten run that has propelled Paulo Fonseca’s side up to fourth in the table.
Smalling’s role in the Giallorossi’s resurgence should not be underestimated either. In his six appearances to date, he has not been dribbled past once and has been dominant in the air, winning 33 aerial duels.
There have also been 33 recoveries and he has won 44 of his 60 duels, while his distribution of the ball has also been impressive, as underlined by a pass accuracy of 91.46 per cent.
As far as the Gazzetta are concerned, there has been no more impressive centre-half in Serie A so far this season, with his average rating of 6.5 making him look like an absolute bargain at €3 million (£2.7m/$3.2m) when one considers Juventus‘ €75m man Matthijs de Ligt is averaging 5.58.
Smalling is certainly enjoying playing under Fonseca, an offensively minded coach who places a lot of faith in his centre-halves comfort in possession, as well as their pace and sense of positioning.
“I like to push up high, play high up the pitch, and the manager wants us to be high,” the former Fulham ace enthused.
“I am a defender that likes to defend on the front foot so I think this is the perfect type of football for me.”
He also seems the ideal type of character to deal with the challenges that come with playing abroad.
As both he and United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pointed out before the defender’s move to Rome, not many English players are brave enough to try their luck in a foreign country.
However, as soon as the Norwegian told Smalling that he could not guarantee him first-team football this season, the Londoner jumped at the opportunity to test himself overseas. His enthusiasm has only increased over the past two months.
Smalling is taking “four or five” Italian lessons a week and has already become a popular figure at Roma, as underlined by the delighted reaction of his team-mates – and the club’s famously innovative social media channels – to his goal in Udine.
Many United fans questioned the wisdom of letting Smalling leave and it is true that the club would have preferred to offload Marcus Rojo (and that remains the case).
However, it is now looking like a shrewd move, not only by Roma, but also by Solskjaer, who said at the time, “I think he’ll enjoy it in Italy. It’s a big club and a big league. Chris will come back stronger and fitter for the experience.”
The early signs are certainly encouraging and this could end up being a win-win for Solskjaer and his side. If Smalling maintains his impressive form, at the end of the season United are other going to benefit from the return of a player who seems to have been reborn in Rome. Or make a tidy profit on a player who turns 30 later this month.
As for Smalling, he’s already targeting a first England call-up in two years.
“I do harbour hopes that if I have a special season then I can be involved again,” he admitted to Forbes.
“Those ambitions are very much burning bright inside me.”
And rightly so. Two months after being discarded by United, Smalling is a man in demand again.