It seems Manchester United cannot go a season without a defensive crisis these days.
But hopefully that is about to change, withChris Smalling’s imminent return from injury providing the defence with a much-needed boost.
Smalling looks set to be involved against Stoke this weekend, after five months out with, initially a groin injury, and then a broken foot.
It is no surprise that we have kept only three clean sheets this season. Two of them were quite fortunate – against Newcastle and Galatasaray – and the other was at home to Wigan.
Admittedly, lack of protection from the midfield and full-backs has too often left our defence exposed and while I am not expecting an instant run of shut-outs now that Smalling is back, the 22-year-old certainly has become a big player for us.
He has gone from strength to strength since joining United in 2010 and I have to say, while his potential was undoubted, I did not see him as a mainstay in the defence for years to come.
Unfortunately that is still the case with some Reds, but I have seen the error of my ways. While Phil Jones is the more obvious favourite, with his gung-ho style and attacking attributes, Smalling is more of a natural defender.
He reads the game astonishingly well for someone who was playing non-league football four years ago and he is dominant in the air. On top of that he is technically very good and can play just as well at right-back.
While the ‘demise’ of Rio Ferdinand has been hugely over-exaggerated by the media and fans alike, Smalling’s return will alleviate pressure on the current centre-backs and give Sir Alex the option of rotating and resting players.
Also, while I couldn’t really care less about England these days, it shouldn’t be too long before Smalling is a regular at international level too. He was starting to stake a claim last season, before injury ruined his hopes of going to Euro 2012.
This is nowhere near a make-or-break season for Smalling, as his talent is undeniable, but maybe it will be the season he makes himself a guaranteed starter for both club and country.