But by the end of the game, anyone that had somehow missed his inclusion in the team was well aware of the England international’s presence on the pitch.
Last season Chris Smalling proved one of the more astute buys as he deputised mainly for Rio Ferdinand in United’s defence. Although rotating between right back and center back, he has carried on his good form this season too, with an England call up the reward for his good work.
United’s frailty at the back has become a little too evident this term; the absence of senior players, age taking it’s toll and naivety from younger players has seen us afford teams chances that wouldn’t normally be there.
For example in our most recent defeats we struggled with long balls and the aerial threat Blackburn and Newcastle presented, Samba earned a penalty from it and Demba Ba’s goal was the direct result of it too.
There has been much discussion about Phil Jones this season and his best position and whilst it is widely agreed that he will eventually end up at center back, he has shown a naivety in the positon. This isn’t to detract from the outstanding season Jones has been having, but there is a reason why many people have stated that they prefer Smalling at center back and Jones at right back.
And Smalling’s performance against Man City lent further credence to this.
Like last season’s derby at Old Trafford, Smalling was brilliant. His performance is even more impressive if talk of him not training prior is true.
Yesterday wasn’t one of Rio Ferdinand’s better games and he showed some of the weaknesses that saw him take a fair bit of criticism early in the season, but beside him Smalling stood tall. He as always showed a calmness and confidence despite the chaos going on around him and was easily our best defender.
On the ground he ensured that City couldn’t feed the ball to their lone striker Aguerro and importantly, in light of our recent poor showings, proved dominant in the air too. With Ferdinand not looking himself, Smalling did his best to bail out his partner including late on where a lapse from Rio meant Smalling had to win a head against Lescott and Richard or face the possibility of an equaliser.
Initially I thought some were being harsh on Rio, but it is becoming clearer that at 33 he is losing that something that made him one of the better defenders in the world. We are lucky then that we have a plethora of young talent in the club in that position especially Chris Smalling.
His development has been remarkable and looking at him you wouldn’t guess he was playing non league football in 2008.
At the start of the season quite a few people surmised that with Rio’s body failing him, his place as a starter would be usurped. But whilst many picked Jones to be the person to replace him, Smalling is looking the more viable option.
Of course he isn’t the finished article and there are areas in which he can improve, but at 22 he has a long career ahead of him and come next season with Vidic back I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Smalling lining up beside him.