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Manchester United 2012-13 player review: Chris Smalling

Chris Smalling is still a promising young talent, but he ended the season as a fringe player for Manchester United and as the fifth-choice central-defender.

Christopher Lee

The Busby Babe continues with the eleventh installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is defender Chris Smalling.

* Manchester United 2012-13 season review

I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.

What was expected

Smalling had an impressive start to his Manchester United career when he ably deputised for an often injured Rio Ferdinand during the 2010-11 season. At that point in time, the then 21-year-old was being touted as a possible future stalwart in the center of United's defense. Last season, he displayed versatility by playing right-back at times when Rafael struggled with his own fitness issues. Smalling was still in the center-back rotation, as well. However, the rise of Jonny Evans last season and continual niggling injuries ended up reducing the England international to being fourth-choice at center-back.

Ahead of this season, the general hope was that Smalling could further his development -- and if all went ideally for him, he'd force his way into being first-choice as a central-defender. The more reasonable expectation for him, though, due to the presence of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Evans in the squad, was to stay healthy this season while providing depth at both center-back and right-back -- and hopefully he could find a way to get another 30+ appearances.

What we got


GS (sub)

Avg P

Pass %


C %


LB %




AD %


10 (5)























* GS = games started (substitution appearances), Avg P = average passes per game, Pass % = passing accuracy percentage, C = accurate crosses per game, C % = accurate cross percentage, LB = accurate long ball per game, LB% = long ball accuracy, TKL = tackles per game, INT = interceptions per game, F= fouls committed per game, AD% = aerial duels won percentage

It wasn't a disastrous campaign for Smalling, but it was a somewhat disappointing one. A broken metatarsal at the beginning of the season kept him out until late November and when he returned, he never was more than just a squad player. The 23-year-old only make 22 appearances in all competitions this season and only 12 of those were combined Premier League or UEFA Champions League starts. Five more starts were made in lesser important domestic cup competitions as well.

Once again this season, Smalling provided depth at right-back while he also waited for more opportunities in his preferred center-back role. He has good pace and decent quickness for a central-defender, but not necessarily enough of the latter at right-back -- there were moments this season (and last) when quicker wingers would burst past the Englishman. It was beneficial, though, to have his height in the side -- alongside two other central-defenders -- against sides like Stoke City, West Ham United, etc. He was more than able to hold his own at the far-post on crosses when he was deployed at right-back and he also provided another able defender to battle aerially on set-pieces against these physically-imposing sort of sides.

Smalling generally knew when it was required to get forward and join the attack when he was at right-back, though he was more cautious and less mobile than Rafael and Phil Jones. A bit like the latter, he can whip in a decent out-swinging cross from near the touchline, but he doesn't always look up to pick out a United attacker. There are times, as well, when he delivers the cross too early.

As a central-defender, Smalling has all the physical capabilities to be top-notch. As I've touched on already, he's very solid in the air and his mobility is good for the position. The Englishman's positioning can be suspect, but he seems to be better at this when partnered by the experienced Ferdinand or Vidic. He also has a decent understanding with Jones and this is probably due to their time together in the England Under-21 squad. On the ball, Smalling is calm but his decision-making and passing range could improve. He's accurate with his short passes but he doesn't always pick out the right one.

Overall, perhaps because it was difficult for Smalling to get a consistent run of games -- whether that be due to injuries or because other defenders were ahead of him in the pecking order at both center-back and right-back -- he never he seemed to reach the form that he impressively displayed at times during his first two seasons at Old Trafford. It may be harsh to say that the England international regressed this season, but he certainly didn't progress either.

What's next?

For the time-being, it's difficult to know what Smalling's Old Trafford future is because we simply don't know how new manager David Moyes rates the defender. There has been recent speculation, though, that United may be close to triggering the £17 million release clause for Benfica's Ezequiel Garay. Smalling ended the season as the fifth-choice central-defender so if the Argentine center-back did actually join the club, then perhaps it's the Englishman's spot on the squad that is most under threat. It'll be interesting to see how the summer transfer dealings play out in regards to the back four.

If Smalling does stay at the club, then he'll once again be jockeying for position with Evans and Jones in an attempt to convince Moyes that he can be a central-defender to build the squad around when Ferdinand and Vidic eventually retire or leave the club. This would require, though, further development and a stop to the constant niggling injuries.