Chris Smalling: How well is the former Manchester United defender playing at Roma?

2NKTT09 Chris Smalling of Roma greets his supporters at the end of the UEFA Europa League, Play-off, 2nd leg football match between AS Roma and FC Salzburg on February 23, 2023 at Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy - Photo Federico Proietti / DPPI

Manchester United ended their six-year trophy drought at Wembley on Sunday to continue a season of rejuvenation under Erik ten Hag that could theoretically finish with a quadruple.

Their 2-0 triumph over Newcastle to claim the Carabao Cup is their first piece of silverware since they beat Southampton to claim the same trophy back in February 2017, as well as lifting the Europa League three months later with Jose Mourinho in charge.

What has underpinned United’s turnaround has been ten Hag setting things right at the back, signing Lisandro Martinez from Ajax to give Raphaël Varane a new center-back partner. Together with improved play from David de Gea, the United defense has kept ten clean sheets in the Premier League this season.

At the same point in 2016/17, they had kept nine and did so with the likes of Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind as their center-backs. Not names which inspire thoughts of other United greats at the position and yet the quartet were part of a double-winning season.

But one of those players, Chris Smalling, has taken command of Mourinho’s defense in much the same way in Serie A with AS Roma. He and club captain Antonio Valencia were the only players to start in both the Carabao Cup and Europa League finals for Mourinho, and now at the age of 33 Smalling has shown he is not over the hill yet in his career.

Dubbed ‘Smaldini’, he is one of a number of Englishmen to have moved to Italy from the Premier League; he was joined by Tammy Abraham as a teammate at Roma, while Fikayo Tomori enjoyed tremendous success at Scudetto winners AC Milan last season, and Spurs’ Harry Winks is currently on loan at Sampdoria.

AS Roma head coach Jose Mourinho
2MYX2XY Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy. 4th Feb, 2023. Serie A football; Roma versus Empoli; Roma trainer Jose Mourinho Credit: Action Plus Sports/Alamy Live News

Mourinho very rarely deviated from a formation not comprised of a back four during his time in the Premier League, but he has pivoted to a back three at Roma where Smalling has been a leader alongside Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini.

All three have graded well in PFF’s system in a campaign where any outcome other than Napoli winning the Scudetto looks sure to have passed the chasing pack by. There is, though, still Champions League qualification spots up for grabs and Roma are well positioned to do so a year on from winning the UEFA Europa Conference League against Feyenoord.

Should they do so, Mourinho is likely to be even more fervent in keeping Smalling at Roma beyond this season as his current contract is due to expire in June. Last week, Mourinho said ‘he is a fantastic player and is doing amazing for us’ after Roma progressed through to the Europa League Round of 16 by seeing off Salzburg 2-1 on aggregate.

Has Smalling come up big for Roma this season?

Much of the attention given to England defenders not playing in the Premier League was geared towards AC Milan defender Fikayo Tomori in the lead up to Gareth Southgate naming his squad for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but there were calls for Smalling to be considered.

Those calls were faint and, in the end, neither Tomori nor Smalling were selected. The grades, however, point toward Smalling being elite as a defender this season in Serie A as the holder of the best challenge grade in the whole league – 93.5.

AS Roma defender Chris Smalling and Napoli forward Victor Osimhen
2MMC6JH NAPLES, ITALY – JANUARY, 29: Victor Osimhen of SSC Napoli and Chris Smalling of AS Roma compete for the ball during the Serie A match between between SSC Napoli and AS Roma at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Napoli, Italy on January 29, 2023. Photo by Nicola Ianuale Credit: Nicola Ianuale/Alamy Live News

Across the rest of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, only Stade de Reims defender Yunis Abdelhamid (96.1) and Everton’s James Tarkowski (93.6) have better grades.

As for Tomori, who has helped Milan to keep back-to-back clean sheets upon his return from missing three games due to a hip injury, he is among the defenders in the top 5 with a challenge grade of 91.5.

What else has Smalling offered?

Mourinho has assembled a team which aims to be a threat at attacking set pieces and it is from here where Smalling has also impressed in PFF’s shooting grade on his ten shots this season, three of which he has successfully converted into goals.

His 76.4 grade is the second-best among central defenders, behind Fiorentina’s Lucas Martinez Quarta (82.2) and ahead of teammate Ibañez (75.1).

How solid has Roma’s defense been?

Fingers were often pointed at Mourinho for his conservative tactics at United, as well as at Tottenham Hotspur, but he really has constructed a team that is hard to break down at Roma.

First, opposing teams must get past Bryan Cristante in the midfield who occupies top spot at his position in our challenge grading, 86.2. Cristante is one of only three midfielders to have earned a grade over 80.0, ahead of Lecce’s Morten Hjulmand (82.9) and Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot (80.0).

The benefit of Smalling to Roma’s defense is taken further by the efficiency of Ibañez and Mancini. No other club in Europe’s Big Five can claim to have three center-backs all graded in the top 10 at the position, but Roma does and all three are weekly starters.

Ibañez, who joined Roma in 2021 when Smalling also turned his loan move from United permanent, is 3rd overall with a 92.0 challenge grade on the left-side of the back three. It appears as though all three have got up to speed with each other in Mourinho’s second season in charge, with Mancini now ranked 10th with a challenge grade of 88.1.

This has all led to Roma holding the joint-third best defensive record with fierce rivals Lazio after 23 games, only Napoli and Juventus have conceded fewer than the 18 goals shipped in by the Giallorossi.

The fact that Smalling comes with a free price tag means his signature may be coveted by other clubs in Europe as expiration of his contract in the summer nears. His intentions for now lie with extending his stay at the Stadio Olimpico, as he stated last week he does have an option to renew his contract for a further year and that he was ‘very confident’ about staying.

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