Many eyebrows were raised when Manchester United shelled out £10 million for a player who only two years earlier was featuring for Maidstone United in the Isthmian League. In fact, he only made 11 appearances for the non-league club before his big jump to the Premier League with Fulham. The move was perfect for Smalling, playing under a wise manager like Hodgson helped him develop quickly as a player. He made his league début against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Fulham lost 2-1 and it was Smalling who got Chelsea’s second with an own-goal. Despite that, his overall performance was exceptional for a player so inexperienced in top flight football. This and similar composed performances in Europe led to his move to United despite interest from Arsene Wenger.
When Arsenal made a move for Smalling, Fergie was quick to outbid the Gunners which was partly to do with the way he lost out on Aaron Ramsey. Something I feel we will regret massively in years to come. In his first few games for United, it has to be said that he looked nervous, giving away silly fouls by being far too rash in the challenge. However, it is understandable given his incredible rise from non-league to the biggest team in the world. With a few more games under his belt, he became at ease whilst wearing the red shirt. His natural ability started to shine through and the rash challenges, which were very unlike him, stopped happening. There hasn’t really been any doubt about Smalling’s potential as a player; the doubts only came from whether or not he would thrive playing for United and the pressure that comes with it.
Smalling shares many of the same qualities as Rio Ferdinand; composure on the ball, great positioning, accurate distribution, solid in the air and bags of pace. He does seem like the natural successor to Ferdinand in the United back four. His inexperience at the highest level, though, is one of the weaknesses often mentioned when it comes to his career so far. It’s true that he hadn’t featured in any particularly ‘big’ games and fans wondered if he’d still be the same type of player when the pressure is really on. The derby answered that and put to bed the idea that he wouldn’t be able to cope. Carlos Tevez was unusually quiet for a Manchester derby. He has caused United all kinds of problems since he joined City, running around at a ferocious pace as he tries to prove a point to Fergie. Smalling handled everything he threw at him, tackling firm but fair and negating the influence of the Argentinian. Not only that, his positional sense was fantastic. I lost count of the amount of times he intercepted a pass and calmly brought it out and played an accurate pass to a team mate. You could see him grow in confidence throughout the game; this was underlined by his break forward ahead of United’s attackers. If only Nani had found him with the pass then he may have just rounded the day off with a goal.
Of course there are bigger tests and bigger games to come for Smalling. He needs to keep improving and work hard; Ferdinand is 33 years old now so he must have his spot in his sights. I have a feeling that he’ll be a fixture in United’s back four for years to come. £10 million seems a lot of money for a ex non-league player but it may just turn out to be one of the best pieces of business Fergie has done for a while.