We take a look at how Chris Smalling is progressing on loan at Serie A side Roma
We take a look at how Chris Smalling is progressing on loan at Serie A side Roma

Chris Smalling: Analysing his progress at Roma this season - the perfect transfer for Arsenal? The answer for England?


Before football was brought to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic and Euro 2020 postponed until the summer of 2021, Chris Smalling's name was quietly being mentioned by some as a potential starter for England.

You can soon forget about a player once they leave these shores. But Smalling has gone to Italy and been revitalised.

Harry Maguire aside, there is arguably another spot up for grabs (or two depending on formation) in Gareth Southgate's starting XI, with Joe Gomez another leading contender as John Stones and Michael Keane continue to struggle to deliver consistently for both club and country.

You would have put Smalling in that bracket too 12 months ago. The odd injury, inconsistent performances and managerial changes meant he had been in and out of the Manchester United team.

With that in mind, it was surprising to see only David De Gea (383) and Antonio Valencia (339) had played for the Red Devils more in the last decade than Smalling (323).

Nemanja Matic, Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling look downbeat after conceding
Chris Smalling: Defender and Man United teammates look downbeat after conceding

After falling out of the first team picture and down the pecking order at Old Trafford under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and following Maguire's £80million arrival, his career started to plateau and it became clear that a switch may be best for Smalling.

And now, after nearly a season in Serie A with Roma - a loan deal which saw United pocket £2.7million - the 30-year-old has a new lease of life.

His move to Italy is only temporary, for now. Will it become permanent? Is there a way back for Man United? Should he be snapped up by their Premier League rivals? And what about his chances with England?

We track his progress with the Giallorossi this term and why Arsenal should be among those sides trying to secure his services.


This season...

The stats

A look at Chris Smalling's Roma stats so far in 2019/20
A look at Chris Smalling's Roma stats so far in 2019/20

Smalling has impressed for Paulo Fonesca's side this term.

He has been an ever-present in the centre of a five-man defence, often alongside former Spurs flop Federico Fazio and fellow 2019 arrival Gianluca Mancini (no relation to Italy boss Roberto).

He has even worn the captain's armband on occasions and appears to be comfortable in his new environment both on and off the pitch, telling the BBC in February:

"I've been more than happy with my first half of the season, it's now just making sure that we kick on and finish the season strongly because we have a lot to play for.

"Coming over here and trying to hit ground running with football was the priority. But my family settling in and me learning the language and enjoying the culture, it's something you need to make the most of. My family and I definitely are."

His Roma side are currently fifth in the Serie A table, three points adrift of the top four with 12 games to play, while they remain in the Europa League, with a round of 16 double header against Spanish side Sevilla once the game gets back underway.

There was always going to be a question over how he would adapt to the Italian game, with a sturdy back line and tactical discipline vital.

So intelligence and adaptability was key, but that was not going to be difficult for Smalling. Intelligence? No problem - after all, he was set to study financial economics at university before making the move into professional football with Fulham in 2008.

And his background shows his willingness to learn. Coming from non-league football, he has had the unconventional rise and experience you cannot buy in academy football. From Maidstone to Man United and England via Fulham, Smalling has been a student of the game.

So he has had to do that once more and take new information on board in Italy and it is fair to say the move has revitalised his career.

Chris Smalling: Roma defender's heatmap - Serie A only - this season (Source: Sofascore.com)
Chris Smalling: Roma defender's heatmap - Serie A only - this season (Source: Sofascore.com)

He has soon become a hit with the fans, but even his manager did not expect him to have such an impact at the club.

"He surprised me," Fonseca recently admitted to Portuguese publication A Bola.

"He's a defender that had never left England and he arrived in a league very demanding of tactics, where details make the difference.

"Chris adapted very quickly. He's an extraordinary guy, very intelligent. He has characteristics that I really appreciate in the centre.

"He's fast, nearly unbeatable in one-on-ones. He has a great ability to read the play and anticipate. He was very important for this club.

"If possible, I would like him to stay. He's a great professional and person, it's a pleasure to have him here with us."

Granted, Smalling's time there has not been free of faults - such as conceding two penalties in the league - but as a defender you are prone to making them, even Virgil van Dijk does every now and then.

Smalling has played in 21 of their 26 Serie A games (90 minutes every time), scoring twice and laying on one assist at the other end, while being an ever present in their run to the latter stages of the Europa League.

Like Van Dijk, his tackle rate may be low at just one per game, but that comes from his excellent reading of the game which sees his interception numbers higher across the course of the campaign, averaging two and making 4.5 clearances per game in Serie A.

He has won over half of his duels (57% on the ground and 70% in the air) and for a central defender his discipline is impressive, with just three bookings in all competitions.

As Fonseca states, Smalling has adjusted well to the tactics in Italy, a country obsessed with systems, defence and tactical discipline, and regardless of whether he makes his stay there permanent, he will emerge from the spell a better player.

With Roma and Man United in similar areas of their respective tables, here is how he compares with the Red Devils' star defender:

How Chris Smalling and Harry Maguire's stats compare this term
How Chris Smalling and Harry Maguire's stats compare this term


The future - what does it hold?

Chris Smalling (top centre) is one of four current Roma players to have played for Manchester United or Manchester City
Chris Smalling (top centre) is one of four current Roma players to have played for Manchester United or Manchester City

Two Premier League titles, plus FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League victories represent a pretty decent run at Old Trafford. Throw in 31 England caps and that's by no means a bad return at all.

That being said, you cannot help but think it could have been even better but for the odd injury (a metatarsal and foot injury most notably) and consistent disruption to the United team.

A regular change of manager and their formations post Ferguson - David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer - has hardly made for a settled team for him to play in.

When Smalling first moved to Rome, United boss Solskjaer initially insisted that it would not be permanent and that they would look forward to welcoming the England defender back.

But times change. United have moved on, with Maguire proving to be the leader at the back that they have needed since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic left.

Alongside him, there is Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and even Axel Tuanzebe while they are continuously linked with more defensive reinforcements, such as Kalidou Koulibaly - one of those names that does not go away as it is widely acknowledged that they could still do with another world-class central defender.

You would expect that, if Smalling was to return to the club, he would move ahead of Jones and Tuanzebe in the pecking order but it remains to be seen whether he would get in ahead of Lindelof and Bailly, with the former gradually improving and showing the potential which saw Mourinho shell out £31million for him in 2017.

So with that space up for grabs, could he return to the club with a clean slate?

It is easy for United fans to consider the prospect and revert back to the thought of the old Smalling. But, do not forget, he would be returning a better player. His reading of the game and tactical awareness could be valuable.

Chris Smalling and Paul Pogba celebrate
Chris Smalling and Paul Pogba celebrate in the Manchester derby

Solskjaer did say before Christmas: "Chris has been fantastic - we know sometimes if you change the environment it can go both ways.

"But Chris is the type to relish these challenges, he's cultured, enjoys life down there, it's a new experience for him.

"He's a boy who couldn't be here without being a regular and we're so happy for him because we can see the top player he is."

Although the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic may affect their (and world football's) summer spending - and Smalling could return regalvanised, with confidence and like a new signing - United may be tempted to cash in where possible.

If they do, the figure being touted for Smalling in January, when there was talk of Roma making the move permanent, was that he could be available for around £13m. A bargain really for a defender of his standing, who arrived at Man United for £7million 10 years ago - that's value for money.

The downside for Roma is there was reportedly no option to buy in their loan deal and after such displays his stock could well have risen.

But the indication is that both parties - Roma and Smalling - would like to get a permanent deal done. It was reported in January that Smalling has told his management team to make it happen.

On a permanent move, he told the BBC in January: "I think the plan at the start of the season was to contribute as much as I can and then hopefully if we've all had a good season and hit our ambitions then those discussions can take place."

Although the Bundesliga has proved otherwise in the last couple of seasons, it is rare to see a British footballer go abroad and succeed. But Smalling is enjoying his football again in a decent Roma side and his family seem settled.

At 30 years old, he is entering his prime and if there is the opportunity to stay put at Stadio Olimpico, then why disrupt something that has worked so well to date?

While that might be his best option, the sticking point could well be no Champions League football for Roma, meaning they could not afford to keep Smalling.

With that currently not on the cards, Smalling may have to start considering his other options.

If that is the case, others will be waiting in the wings ready to pounce - Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and Serie A duo Juventus and Inter Milan have all been linked with Smalling since he has been in Italy.

He would be an excellent signing for either of the London duo, who really need to strengthen their back lines.

A return to the English capital could be tempting and Arsenal look like the perfect match for Smalling.

Mikel Arteta's revolution may well look promising with their development in attack since his arrival, but they still look a shambles at the back.

They could really do with some stability. With a central defender who is comfortable on the ball, reads the game well, knows the English game and with leadership qualities - Smalling pretty much ticks all the boxes. A Premier League winner who could guide those young stars around him and possibly the ideal partner for Pablo Mari - Arsenal's on-loan centre-back who is poised to make his Emirates stay permanent.

And sure, he could make the odd mistake, but that is nothing Arsenal fans have not seen before from their centre-backs in recent seasons and he will more than make up for them over the course of the campaign.

Reuniting with Mourinho at Tottenham is potentially an option with Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen (whose future is uncertain) and Davinson Sanchez all looking shaky, while an alternative in the north west of England could be with Everton, who have recently been linked.

Carlo Ancelotti's side are another who need to shore up at the back and Smalling could be the ideal partner for the improving Yerry Mina as they look to break into the top six and bring European football back to Goodison.

Smalling would strengthen them all, undoubtedly, but if he is on his way out of Man United permanently this summer and Roma are unable to keep him, then the Gunners look a perfect fit.


England: A starter at the Euros?

Chris Smalling currently has 31 England caps to his name

Say Smalling did go to Arsenal and have a good campaign, he could be straight back in the reckoning for England again. If he stays at Roma, he should still be considered, not only to be part of the squad, but to be part of the starting XI.

Evidence here shows that, although Smalling may be out of our periphery, he has his confidence back and has stepped up his game since leaving the Red Devils. He remains one of the Three Lions' best defensive options and can push Maguire and Gomez for a starting spot at next summer's rearranged tournament.

You would hope that all three can remain fit, but Gomez in particular has had trouble with injuries in recent seasons with Liverpool and here lies a competent replacement.

But Southgate's side might actually work better with Smalling in there. Maguire in the middle of a central three, Smalling to the left of centre as he has done so well with Rome this term, Gomez to the right of centre, with Ben Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold bombing down the wings.

Smalling will, by then, be 31 and can bring experience to what will still be a relatively young England side. Southgate needs his leaders on the pitch and this man fits the mould.

With the fact he is one of Southgate's best options available, ahead of Fikayo Tomori and Tyrone Mings, the 4/1* odds with Sky Bet for him to make the squad next summer is somewhat surprising and appealing, considering what he could bring.

If he returns to club football in England, you can only see those odds shortening. So providing he stays fit, that's an excellent price.


The footage

Defensive clips are few and far between in terms of highlights on social media but a couple of his contributions at the other end:


*Odds correct as of 1630 BST on 25/04/20

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