I was watching the Manchester Derby and, while there were a lot of other things to watch out for, it was Chris Smalling that sparked me wanting to write.
I’ve been watching Smalling closely for a long time (in the context of my ‘watching-football-closely’ life, of maybe 5 years or so). He’s always seemed quite ‘handsy’ – very hands-on with forwards, to the point where it looks like he’s clinging onto them because he’s scared they’ll get away from him if he doesn’t.
And yet, they do get away from him.
So I wanted to go and look through some clips to work out what’s going on.
…And after watching a bunch, I think I’ve got to say that I was, at least partly, wrong to be so sceptical.
First, let me take you through an instance of what I usually think about when I think about Smalling on a forward’s back.
The ball is being played into a Wolves player (who I think is Diogo Jota), and the forward is checking his shoulder for where Smalling, off-screen, is bearing down at him.
Smalling, steaming in, tries to get around one side of the forward to try and get the ball. The man who I think is Jota has played him nice and easily though, and the forward is shaping to turn out in the other direction.
I think Smalling might get a bit of a touch on it (having a long reach isn’t just important in basketball)…
Because the ball goes a bit of a distance from Jota as he turns. He still manages to turn, but it’s a much larger turning circle than he would have liked.
The formula is basically thus:
- A ball is played into a forward who has their back to goal and is between 1 and several yards ahead of Smalling.
- Smalling makes a beeline for their back to apply pressure, but often to try and nick the ball away.
- He’s usually making up enough ground that it’s hard to control his speed when he needs to slow down/he’s just naturally clumsy looking(/both).
Enjoying the newsletter? It’d be great to get this kinda thing in your inbox every week…
This same pattern popped up in the Manchester Derby, of course. But watching them back, it made me re-assess Smalling. Let me take you through one moment in quite a bit of detail.
A pass is played into Sergio Aguero, who is running across the defence on a diagonal to get into the space.
This is where Smalling’s difficulty controlling his pace when he needs to ‘slow down on re-entry’ or his decision-making almost becomes a problem.
As the ball gets closer, Aguero’s body looks like he’s shaping to roll Smalling inside. Smalling is able to be rolled easily because he’s not on the direct line of ball and Aguero. He’s stepping outside of that.
He looks a little like he’s trying to get around the side of Aguero to pinch the ball away — which is what he ends up doing — but I’m not sure at what point that idea comes to him. He’s far enough away from Aguero (who is, let’s not forget, a really good striker) that planning to get in front of him to nick the ball away seems a risky move.
Fortunately for Smalling, the ball isn’t quite wide enough for Aguero to turn and roll, and he has to stop where he is.
Aguero receives the ball, and he’s stretching out an arm to keep Smalling at a distance and to check where he is.
At this point, I’m watching and thinking “ok, Smalling, you’ve done enough now, contain him and let your team-mates get into position”. Maybe I just have a conservative defensive mindset. I think he was a little fortunate to contain him, but he has Aguero unable to turn now.
But Smalling has other ideas to me. He still wants the ball. (Maybe I just have shorter legs than Smalling and that’s why I’m more conservative).
The defender clearly knows how long his legs are at least, because he gets a touch on the ball.
It’s not a particularly clean touch, and because the two teams are so stretched out, Smalling nudges it into space where several different players can potentially converge on it.
Aguero falls over (make a note of that), Sterling is the closest to it, and Smalling is still chasing. Once again, my Spidey senses tingle in panic about Smalling rushing out towards another challenge.
But Smalling doesn’t dive in. And his presence forces Smalling to pause, and to roll and pass backwards.
None of it looked particularly reassuring. There a couple of times within a few seconds where I think I justifiably worried that the attack could take advantage of Smalling. But they didn’t, his defending was actually quite effective.
And I watched several more clips of these types of moments, and that was a repeating pattern. It looked messy, and I think that it broadly was messy, but it was effective.
Funnily enough, Smalling giving Lionel Messi a crack across the nose is the emblematic example of this.
A chipped ball is played and Smalling is, uhm, a distance from Messi.
It’s actually — literally, it turns out — a bit of a hospital pass to Messi, who has to wait an age under this lofted ball while not really having enough time to check if anyone large with flailing arms is bearing down on him.
Smalling arrives on the scene and there isn’t really any way for him to deal with the situation at this point other than to keep his momentum going towards the ball.
Poor Messi’s nose. You also get a sense of the lack of control Smalling has had over his body and speed given that the ball seems to hit him quite high in the chest.
Also, after he lands, this is how far he travels before he regains control of his strides.
I don’t think that this was a foul — Smalling didn’t go through Messi to get to the ball, it was mostly an accident. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been given as a foul.
Smalling’s approach involves physical contact so much, and just looks a bit clumsy too, so I’m surprised that more forwards don’t set out to win fouls against him all game. It seems like it wouldn’t be too difficult to win a relatively early yellow against him, and after that you have an advantage against him.
Sign up for the Get Goalside! football analysis newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday
And trying to win fouls against Smalling is something that some forwards already do.
This is (I think) West Ham’s Javier Hernandez feeling some pressure on his back and going down easily but possibly justifiably.
Luis Suarez gave Smalling a real battle in the first leg between Manchester United and Barcelona in the Champions League this season.
Here is Smalling aaaaaallll over the striker, which was given as a foul.
Suarez is also giving as good as he gets there, to be fair to Smalling. But the approach — to back into Smalling, force him into the contact he wants to give you anyway, and then lean back into him so that it looks like he’s pulling you down, and then complain to the ref — is the one more forwards should take with him.
Suarez also tried the other strategy, to roll him, but Smalling was equal to it.
Once again, Suarez is backing into the defender. The tussle is on, and even.
Then Suarez begins to open his body like a door, so that he’s side-on to the opposition goal instead of having his back to it.
You can see above how his left leg is wafting out, waiting to bring the ball close to him and into his stride in one movement as he turns.
But then Smalling’s gets there first.
I’m still not entirely sure what to think about Smalling’s approach to this particular type of duel with opposing forwards.
It does often seem to be effective. But it does also seem to be very close to the line of what could be called a foul OR, at times, very close to the forward being able to roll and get away from him.
Occasionally he’s just so tight, and his legs reach so far, that turning isn’t an option — but it’s here that I’m particularly on edge about the foul potential.
It seems like Smalling’s moments away from an incident that brings the whole approach into the media spotlight. It’s like with diving: a player may win two or three soft penalties within a few months, but then there’ll be one that looks really suspect, or that’s actually penalised for simulation. That player is now branded ‘a diver’, and it gets harder for them to win decisions.
Although Smalling’s defending in these situations is broadly effective, it feels like the same could happen to him.
Maybe he has a game where there are several of these moments within a few minutes that are all called as fouls. Fans and the media get it in their head that Smalling is a clumsy defender, prone to fouling. It gets brought to the referees’ attention. Suddenly, Smalling only has to touch an attacker for them to protest and win a free-kick.
This is all hypothesising and ‘what if’s, but it shows how close to the line I think the defending is. I also think that you can extrapolate it out to other parts of Smalling’s game, especially his defending at set-pieces.
But anyway. This has been around 1500 words on just one part of Chris Smalling’s game. Because this is the Get Goalside! defensive analysis newsletter and that’s just the kinda thing we love here.
Thanks very much for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.