Chris Smalling could be in for a particularly tricky season at Manchester United. Not necessarily because of anything he’s done, of course; the England international established himself as the club’s best centre back last season, and in the absence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, Smalling, out of the trio of him, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, was the one to step up and attempt to compensate for the gaping hole of experience and quality that they left behind.
Despite a rocky end to last season, culminating in an own-goal against Bournemouth in the Premier League’s final game and that disappointing red card in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, Smalling was one of a handful of United players in last season’s squad to emerge from the mess that was Louis van Gaal’s second and final season in charge with a half-decent reputation.
Smalling has been confirmed fit for Friday’s game against Soutgampton by Jose Mourinho, following a few minor injuries and a late return to pre-season training due to his involvement with England in Euro 2016. This was confirmed by Manutd.com during the manager’s press conference this afternoon:
“Centre-back Chris Smalling, like the Frenchman, is also now free from suspension and available, while Jesse Lingard is fit again after missing the win at the Vitality Stadium.”
Given that Smalling’s involvement in pre-season was minimal, it’s unlikely that the England international will be thrown straight into the starting XI. Things also get somewhat more complicated due to the fact that Daley Blind and Eric Bailly have seemingly struck upon a useful partnership in the centre of defence. Blind’s reading of the game and control on the ball acts as a nice counterpoint to the power and strength that Bailly offers, and whilst this hasn’t yet led to a clean sheet, they’ve appeared composed, and have let few chances squirm their way to David de Gea in goal.
As such, if the duo continue their current form, Smalling now has a fight on his hands to force his way back into the starting XI on a regular basis. Getting games will not be an issue, as the Europa League’s commencement next month means that Mourinho can use his squad to share games around, but Smalling surely harbours ambitions of regaining his place in the starting line-up, something that could be complicated even further should United land Jose Fonte, as it has been reported that talks have taken place between United and Southampton. Whatever happens, Smalling will need to work hard to impress Mourinho if he wants to be a regular starter again, because he’s already a few weeks behind his colleagues in that regard.