Chris Smalling proving worth at AS Roma
Background Image: Gary Denham, CC-BY-2.0
Chris Smalling arrived at AS Roma out of the blue at the end of the transfer window. He had limited time to adapt to a new team, league and country. Being a vegan in the carbonara capital without the compliment of pre-season seemed like a mission impossible. Smalling, however, has been sensational.
Roma's signing of the 29-year-old was desirous. I Giallorossi were short of options in central defence following Kostas Manolas' and Ivan Marcano's departures to Napoli and FC Porto respectively. They conceded 48 goals last season, doom awaited without the pair. Federico Fazio came off another poor season. Juan Jesus, as always, remains inconsistent.
Fazio began the campaign as Paulo Fonseca’s undisputed choice while alternating Jesus and youngster Gianluca Mancini. The experiment backfired, shipping in goals in four successive matches. They were beaten seven times, thrice in the opening day stalemate with Genoa. Something drastic was needed.
An absolutely helpless Fonseca was forced to call on his English import against Atalanta. It may have been otherwise had Jesus stayed fit or Mancini wasn't suspended. Smalling slotted alongside Fazio and for all their Premier League experience, the unfancied Nerazzurri put two goals past Pau Lopez at the Olimpico.
Yet the Roma boss kept the faith and is being rewarded. The capital club conceded only twice in five Serie A matches afterwards. That included impressive victories on the road at Lecce, AC Milan and Udinese. In Europe, they surrendered only twice, too.
Roma recovered from a slow start to climb up to fourth. They are unbeaten in seven consecutive games since that slip to Atalanta in September. With 11 goals conceded, the Romans are the third-best defensively. However, no side match I Giallorossi in the last two months. They're conceding fewer in the division and Smalling is crucial to this resurgence.
Alongside Fazio, Smalling has given Roma stability at the back. The Manchester United loanee hasn't missed a minute since lurching into Fonseca’s team. Smalling looks like a different player. An imposing tower, he wins nearly all his battles in the air. According to Whoscored, he boasts the most aerial duels won per game in the division with an average of 5.8.
Smalling developed an intimidating partnership with Fazio. The pair are similar with a commanding presence in the box. At 1.95 and 1.95 metres, they are physically strong and likes to use their strength. Smalling, though, compliments the Argentine perfectly, with calmness and composure. He's also making fewer errors.
Through six Serie A appearances, no opponent has dribbled past him, and he has succeeded with 100% of his attempted tackles. The Englishman occasionally assisted at the other end, too.
It was with the assistance of a well-choreographed crossing run from Smalling to take out his marker at a corner that helped Edin Dzeko score Roma’s opener against AC Milan at the weekend. He registered his own effort on Wednesday - the second in the 5-0 drubbing of Udinese.
Fazio was harshly sent off after half an hour in that encounter following a coming-together with Stefano Okaka. Yet Smalling held his own and never looked in danger, even storming forward to score.
The secret to the Englishman's revival is Fonseca's trust and style. The Roma boss prefers defensive line, such that pace is an essential trait for his centre-backs. He admits enjoying being placed in individual duels. He told the club's official site:
“In England quite often you have to deal with just one striker, so you’ve got your other central defender covering you – whereas often here you can be left two-on-two a lot of the time. There’s a lot more runs in behind being made too … I’m enjoying it – because I quite like a tussle and a sprint against the striker. It definitely suits my game.”
There are already talks of a permanent stay in Rome. With such consistent display, it is imminent.