Guest Author: Doron
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In the summer of 2011, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were paired together at the European U21 Championships in Denmark. It was the start of a partnership that held much promise for both club and country and they were the major positive to come out of an otherwise disappointing tournament for England, with the pair particularly impressive in a 1-1 draw against Spain. To date, the potential of their partnership has been unfulfilled and in the coming week, Roy Hodgson has the chance to pair them together for England for what would only be the second time at senior level.
Once dubbed as two of the most promising young centre backs for their country, neither Phil Jones (23) nor Chris Smalling (25) have been able to become fixtures in either United’s or England’s first eleven. In the post-Terry/Ferdinand era, one or both would have been expected to be a regular for the national side, but their combined 28 appearances for England since autumn 2011, are the result of occasional rather than consistent selection. Likewise, with an injury ravaged Nemanja Vidic and a fading Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford, neither managed to make secure a place in the heart of United’s defence, as a consequence of injuries and mixed form.
Even this season, with both Vidic and Ferdinand departed and Jonny Evans suffering a severe crisis in confidence, it is only through circumstance (Evans’ spit-gate and Rojo’s injury) that they’ve found themselves reunited at the heart of United’s defence again in the two standout performances of the season, against Spurs and Liverpool. They had previously been selected together as part of a three-man defence but until just over a week ago, never before as a pair by van Gaal.
The manager’s meticulous methods have dictated that a right foot-left foot pairing at the back is the ideal scenario and hence Rojo, Evans and Blackett have all found themselves ahead of Smalling or Jones for that left centre back role. Against Spurs, minus Evans and Rojo, van Gaal sensibly decided to pair Jones with Smalling, rather than play Blind at centre back for the first time since January. As an aside, and I’m sure some may scoff, Jones actually has a decent left foot; so much so that some journalists covering the Euro 2011 tournament who’d not seen much of him before, referred to him as a left footed player.
On paper, regardless of the right foot-right foot combination that sits uncomfortably with van Gaal, Smalling and Jones should make a good pairing. Both are generally comfortable in possession*, they’re strong, often dominant in the air, and are similar although not identical in style. Where they differ is their general approach to defending; Smalling is the better reader of the game and is more adept at intercepting, whereas Jones is more aggressive and physical (sometimes to too greater extent, admittedly).
For the majority of their four years together at United, the fact that they weren’t nailed down as starters for club, let alone country, was not necessarily a failure but instead a frustration. At United, they tended to still have at least one of Ferdinand or Vidic, as well as Evans, blocking their way to the first team. Opportunities to play at centre back were therefore limited and, under Ferguson, they often were played at right back or, in Jones’ case, centre midfield, in order to get them games. By the time both Vidic and Ferdinand were definitively on a downwards trajectory, Ferguson had gone and Moyes, trapped in the bright lights of an on rushing ambulance, wasn’t inclined to jettison his experienced club legends in favour of two young players who had failed to secure their positions under the man who made him king.
Of course, it wasn’t easy to bring them into the team for a long run of games when neither could maintain their fitness, however they are to some degree unfortunate here. Footballers are now so finely tuned that their bodies get used to the rhythm of playing, something van Gaal has touched upon at times. To go in and out of a side is not easy, and increases the risk of picking up injuries. There’s only so much you can do in training but in a match situation the muscles respond and react differently so it’s not that surprising that both Smalling and Jones have picked up so many injuries when they have been so inconsistently selected. Jones at times doesn’t help himself with his all-action body-on-the-line style, but there is still some level of mitigation for them.
If you venture beyond the preconceptions, however, there are signs of improvement; Smalling has missed only six games this season and although Jones has missed twelve, United’s squad are now suffering far less injuries than they were during the blitz suffered in van Gaal’s first few months. Despite his injuries, van Gaal clearly likes Jones and when he’s been fit, he’s generally played; 1,622 minutes is more than any other defender bar Valencia. It seems van Gaal trusts Smalling too, having selected him to play in games against all the other big sides and, his horror show at City aside, he has more than repaid his manager’s faith in these games.
Both Jones and Smalling must be aware that United will be in the market for a centre back this summer and it’s been encouraging to see them knuckling down and rising to the challenge. They have eight games left this campaign to prove themselves and maintain their fitness in order to give van Gaal a welcome dilemma going into the new season.
Although one assumes that there’s a good chance Rojo could come back in to the side for the Villa game, it would be harsh to drop either Smalling or Jones right now and, as the selection of Juan Mata at Anfield demonstrated, if you come in and play well, van Gaal will reward you. Smalling has started the last five games and with the exception of the (not given) penalty at Newcastle, he has shown real confidence in taking the ball out of defence and has generally been amongst United’s best players. His partnership with Jones has looked, in the main, dependable and although Spurs were poor, they dealt with the in-form Harry Kane exceptionally and then faced up to the very different challenge of Liverpool’s speedsters with ease too.
There may still be the odd daft moment from one or the other, but it’s easy to forget that both are making up for lost playing time and they are under the microscope of playing for Manchester United; given the criticism they receive, you wouldn’t think United have one of the best defensive records in the league. If (and to an extent it does always seem to come back to this) they can remain fit, then this feels like a big moment in their careers. With a winnable game against Lithuania coming up and a friendly against Italy, Roy Hodgson would be wise to play them in one of, if not both of those games. They are the in-form English centre backs and the in-form United centre backs. It should be hoped that their performances put an end to the ridicule they have experienced in recent years and that they succeed in developing as people once used to believe they would.
*again, people may laugh at this comment, but the reality is that they are no less comfortable on the ball, and actually probably more so, than some great United defenders of the past; Rooney’s predecessor as captain, for one.