With the recent opinion that Christian ‘Bentekkers’ Benteke has usurped Darren Bent as Aston Villa’s first choice striker, Manchester United will have to work hard this weekend to suppress the emerging Belgian’s talents. Thankfully, for a team that has already shipped fourteen goals, the Red Devils can look forward to the return of one of the English game’s most promising young defenders – Chris Smalling.
Despite his rather tender age of 22, the composed centre-half has already made an impact at the heart of the United defence. In the two years since he moved up north from Fulham, Smalling has figuratively blossomed as a footballer. He has been fortunate in certain terms that he has been able to learn from arguably one of the best centre-back pairings in recent history: Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Gleefully for United fans, the youngster is showing a reflection of the latter.
Manchester United’s creaking defence hinges somewhat on the ageing of what was a previously infallible partnership between Vidic and Ferdinand, but also Patrice Evra too. Sir Alex Ferguson has always struggled initially to rebuild after his first-choice centre-backs have seen their best days. After the legendary combination of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, it was a few years until the next truly dependable pairing was born – Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen.
Even then, after the colossal Dutchman departed for Lazio and the versatile Norwegian succumbed to his knee troubles, it wasn’t until five years later in the 2006/07 season that Ferdinand and Vidic came to fruition. In that period, Laurent Blanc, Mikael Silvestre, John O’Shea and Wes Brown all failed to match the mighty contributions of their forbearers.
In Chris Smalling, Manchester United have a defender who hints at serious quality. Already he has performed admirably alongside Ferdinand, Vidic or Evans, and gives the assured impression that he is not out of his depth at all. And though Paul Lambert’s Villa have struggled for goalscoring form this season they possess an abundance of pace in the final third.
For United, this poses a sobering problem; they exhibit a real lack of swiftness at the back. That extra yard of pace that gave Rio Ferdinand that air of all-round impregnability has long since evaporated, while Vidic’s knee injury has notably robbed him of a touch of mobility, while the giant Serb was never the quickest to begin with. Jonny Evans, though vastly improved, has nowhere near the genuine speed that Smalling is blessed with.
While a good deal of the art of defending relies on positioning and the awareness of a forward’s run, a defender with pace is a welcome bonus. By no means is Smalling the finished article, but he is certainly ahead of his England compatriot Phil Jones in the pecking order; he’s more composed on the ball, reads the game far better and has an all-round greater athleticism. That’s not say Jones is in the Jean-Alain Boumsong league of defenders, far from it, but he does not quite posses that assurance that Smalling has already displayed.
So, as United continue their excellent run of form, in spite of their quite obvious defensive frailties, Smalling’s return could not come at a better time. If the 19-time champions can add rearguard security to their current game there is significant evidence to suggest they would be putting teams to bed with consummate ease, especially considering the freewill with which Robin van Persie and co and are scoring.
Up until now, Ferdinand and Evans have been the preferred partnership at the back, with Rio showing increasing signs of weariness. Not only can Smalling offer real competition for places, his versatility also allows him to fill in competently at full-back.
If United are to break the rather unwelcome habit of conceding early in games, it needs to come soon, and who better than against Villa? The West Midlands club have only netted eight goals in the league, but with that being said, both Southampton and Stoke City have put four past Ferguson’s men, so predictions are all but impossible.
What United have in their favour is the calibre of opponents they have already faced – Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham – and fans can be confident that with a run against weaker sides coming up, David De Gea can rack up a few much-needed clean sheets and add to an enviable points tally.
For Villa, goals are the call of the day, and in Bent they have a proven goalscorer, while Benteke looks promising with four goals in his first nine games . Even Gabby ‘Don’t Forget Me’ Agbonlahor struck in the Barclays Premier League for the first time in 29 games.
However, their job would be made somewhat easier if the creaking United defence didn’t have a returning Smalling to contend with. Should the former non-leaguer get the nod ahead of Ferdinand, expect the Villa frontline to find chances in and around the penalty area hard to come by.