Alias Smalling and Jones
The media and social media abuse heaped upon the firm of Smalling and Jones says a great deal about the Manchester United football fan’s psyche. Although Mancunians fill Old Trafford a full two millennia after Romans bayed for gladiatorial blood and Christians to be thrown to lions in the Coliseum, the mentality has barely evolved. By this, I mean that nothing less than overt physical aggression satisfies the typical Old Trafford denizen's entertainment needs.
The hue and cry for the centre-half partnership’s removal is nearing lynch-mob levels, which, given the results they have provided their club, is difficult to understand.
Chris Smalling has started 18 of Manchester United’s 27 league matches, playing the full 90 each time. United has won 11, drawn one, and lost five. Phil Jones has begun 21, finishing 19. He has only been involved in four of United’s defeats.
But that is a baited trap. The haters cannot point to the loss column and claim United is unbeaten when neither features. One or the other has been involved in every Premier League match their club has played. Smalling and Jones, more so than even David de Gea, have been the main reasons the Red Devils have shipped fewer goals than any other top-flight English club. To claim the most effective tandem in the league is atrocious, abysmal, inept, useless, shambolic, utter shite, or adjectives of an even stronger nature that you’re thinking but I won’t print here is to say the entire Premier League is completely incompetent in front of goal.
In other words, you’re all off your heads.
Yes, each has made critical errors that have cost the club a match in recent outings. Phil Jones made two such gaffes that put United behind early to Spurs at Wembley. Yet, United was not able to peg even one goal back. They had opportunities but didn’t finish. Chris Smalling’s mistake led to Matt Ritchie’s goal at St James Park. Again, United were unable to score.
In those circumstances, you cannot blame the duo for costing the club six points. To win a football match, your side must score. Had the errors not been made, all else being equal, United would have played a pair of goalless draws. At worst, Smalling and Jones were responsible for two points lost. A 16 rather than 14-point deficit to City is hardly reason to call for the guillotine.
No one is calling for Andreas Christensen’s head after his ill-advised pass turned Chelsea’s Champions League tie with Barcelona on its head. Defenders are going to make errors that lead to goals. Their measure should lie in how seldom they do. Christensen has made few. With Smalling and/or Jones at its heart, United’s defence has made less than any team in the Premier League.
Further, last I checked, United supporters were not the type to be satisfied with a nil-nil result. Why are they not lambasting the attacking players who haven’t been taking the pressure off the defence by scoring? Or the manager who shifts the ones who are to positions in which they do not excel? Anthony Martial must certainly be wondering how that can be?
Jose Mourinho claimed Alexis Sanchez was signed to provide more competition for places. That apparently is code for ‘I don’t like my quiet Frenchman even though he had 11 goals and nine assists in all competitions before I bought Sanchez, and the Chilean only had eight and four’. United fans have been applauding the Portuguese boss for fixing what wasn’t broken. In that context at least, the furore over Smalling and Jones makes sense.
It should be mentioned, too, that Smalling earned some respite from criticism with an aggressive display against Huddersfield in the FA Cup, winning numerous aerial battles and making several strong interventions. He also played well without an injured Jones at the Mestalla (in another goalless draw) in United's Champions League Round of 16 first leg against Sevilla.
Last year’s defensive darlings were Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo. That distinctly more aggressive pairing ended the 2016/17 campaign as Mourinho’s preferred centre-halves. Injury forced him to look to the more staid Smalling and Jones.
That said, Bailly and Rojo are definitely more physical and, by extension, more exciting. Rojo began last season for Mourinho with a pair of dangerous two-footed challenges for which he was very lucky to not be given extended bans. Both players exhibited adventurous natures, willing to make late runs into the box to surprise defences. Occasionally it worked. Frequently it left United more exposed to counterattacks than Smalling and Jones’ caution permits.
Growing up, I played hockey rather than football. When I wasn’t in net I was defending, and the concept is similar. Control the space in front of goal. Do not be drawn away or venture too far into attack that you cannot recover. There are skilled stars in hockey who contribute at both ends, just as there are in football, but the priorities are the same. Defend first, be exciting later.
The most valid criticism for both Smalling and Jones is that they do not control the ball well. Neither does Bailly, if we’re being honest. Rojo, who is also capable on the flank, has some skill. Which brings us back to the attack. If United fans desperately want defenders who can better transition why are they not focusing their wrath on the expensive array of talent failing to impress in the final third?
Is it the money? Given the current Premier League climate it’s easy to understand how that might be a contributing factor.
Phil Jones is valued at just under £16 million by Transfermarkt. He cost £17 million in 2011. That’s not much depreciation given his long injury history. Chris Smalling cost £7 million in 2010 and is now considered his partner’s equal as a financial asset. His steady contributions have seen his value appreciate.
Yet neither compares to the money United’s two closest rivals have spent in the recently closed window on centre-backs. Liverpool set the new bar at £75 million to obtain Virgil van Dijk. City spent £51.6 million on Aymeric Laporte. Do United fans feel inferior because their side is not spending money as freely as their enemies?
It’s worth noting that Transfermarkt values Laporte at less than 40% his sticker price. United has the best defensive pairing in the league with much less investment but value appears irrelevant to fans.
United supporters want what they do not, and this season cannot, have. They believe money can solve any problem. In January, money has been spent on United's attack, at least in terms of ceding to Alexis Sanchez's exorbitant wage demands. The manager has been given a healthy contract extension. But not a single million has been lavished on the defence. Therefore, fans think, defence must be the prime reason we are not walloping City into submission.
In truth, defence is the sole reason Manchester United are above everyone save City in the Premier League standings. If there is one thing Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward have done right this season, it’s been to leave the defence alone. Smalling and Jones are not perfect but the table proves they have been better than anyone else out there. How is that unacceptable?