Manchester United’s ambitious pursuit of Sergio Ramos in the summer showed that Louis van Gaal was eager to secure a colossal leader at the heart of the Red Devils defence.
After losing influential trio Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in quick succession, United’s backline has had to endure a frustrating period of transition.
However, after initially being stricken with injuries and struggling to impose himself at Old Trafford, Chris Smalling’s dramatic rise under Van Gaal has seen the former Fulham man become a key figure under the Dutchman.
“Yeah I am happy that I have been able to play in every game so far,” Smalling said.
“That is what my aim was at the beginning, especially after the disappointment of last season and the injuries that I had to start with.
“It has been nice to get a consistent run and I am enjoying my football at the minute.
“I would go with a seven out of ten so far. There is definitely more to come.
“I am hoping that I can keep kicking on and improving each day, keep clocking up the games and contributing to the team.”
Smalling praised his Dutch manager for elevating his game.
“He has helped me a lot, he is very honest about what your good points are and what you can improve on.
“That is very refreshing to hear. When he first joined the club he said that after six to eight months of working, when we know what he wants, then we will improve as a team.
“We have obviously improved on the start of last season and, as a player, I definitely feel that I have improved as well. I think he is a manager that improves a lot of players.”
The 25 year old defender hasn’t looked back after ‘stupidly’ getting sent off in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City last November, Smalling’s stature and importance has continued to flourish and has arguably seen him become United’s most consistent performer.
Smalling has conjured up an impressive centre half partnership with Daley Blind, the little and large combination giving United a perfect blend, with Blind’s elegance in possession alongside his intelligent positioning working in tandem with Smalling’s physical presence and pace.
Smalling, in the English Barclays Premier League, has won seven tackles this season with a success rate of 41%. He has made 14 interceptions, 48 clearances and one block. He has accumulated a pass accuracy of 86% with an average pass length of 23m.
Smalling’s game has improved in many aspects – he has become a reliable and imposing defender whom relishes a physical encounter, but arguably his biggest improvement has been his positivity and distribution in possession.
Smalling’s upturn in form saw him sign a new four year deal with the club in April, and after captaining United for the first time against Arsenal in May, Van Gaal has continued to place more trust in Smalling by naming him the clubs third captain behind Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick.
“It’s pretty surreal but it’s nice that the manager has shown faith in me, and he has so much trust in me.
“It’s nice to be rewarded and I hope to reward him back with good performances on the pitch.”
After an impressive 2011 European Under-21 Championship alongside Phil Jones which resulted in the former Maidstone youth player being named in the team of the tournament, the young English pair struggled to live up to the billing of the previous Vidic and Ferdinand partnership.
However unlike Jones, Smalling’s injury hoodoo could well be behind him, and with the England centre half being ever present for the twenty times champions this season, the Old Trafford faithful’s perseverance with Smalling is reaping dividends.
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