Trust is the greatest gift a football manager can give to a player. It has to be earned but once that bridge has been crossed, it’s a confidence booster that can help take any individual’s game to the next level.
This season it’s clear that Louis van Gaal has bestowed that cachet on Chris Smalling.
He may have mistakenly called him ‘Mike’ – much to our amusement at the time – but ever since naming the 25-year-old as his ‘third captain’ on a pre-season tour, the England international has blossomed beautifully.
It’s an endorsement that’s sat well on the former non-league man’s shoulders. No longer perceived as an edgy, often over-exuberant central defender that can ‘do a job’ at right back, Smalling is now the unmistakable leader of Manchester United’s improving rearguard.
Has there been a more consistent defensive performer in the Premier League so far this season? I don’t think so.
The turning point came after the defender was sent off in last season’s Manchester derby; his dismissal for two yellow cards branded ‘stupid’ by the Dutchman in his post-match interviews.
Typically blunt, they were words that might have had an adverse effect on a fragile footballer’s mindset, but Smalling accepted the criticism, learned from his mistakes and came out a better player for it. That attitude, I think, impressed Van Gaal.
With him, I’ve always felt that there was a top class player waiting to burst out.
While his distribution can still improve markedly, the defender, who was once bought by Fulham from Maidstone United for just £10,000, has always had the speed, height, strength and natural footballing brain to excel.
Since being backed by his boss to be a leader, he has also found his voice, and looks a more accomplished player for it. You’ll often see him pointing, and talking to team-mates around him.
A subconscious lack of faith in his top-flight ability, allied with constant defensive tinkering, held him back for too long under Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and initially Van Gaal too.
During the first 31 Premier League matches of last season, Smalling didn’t feature in 16 contests, and in those he did play, he partnered FIVE different centre-backs. The longest run of games he had alongside the same man (or men) was a grand total of two.
With that level of instability going on, and team selection a constant mish-mash, its little wonder he didn’t shine that brightly.
From Van Gaal’s perspective it seems as if Smalling had earned the right to be his first pick with seven matches left to play. Racking up consecutive starts (always on the right side of a two-man pairing) the England international finished the season in commanding and confident form. Like most footballers would, he was lifted by the faith shown in him.
That’s a theme that’s continued this summer, and with Daley Blind alongside him for all six of United’s fixtures so far – in an unchanged back four that’s also being protected well by a robust new midfield –a new aura of self-belief is radiating from the lanky defender’s shoulders.
Statistically, Smalling’s numbers for duels and tackles are all on the rise, but it’s his decision making and presence that catch the eye. When Glenn Hoddle named him man of the match for England on Tuesday evening, the news was greeted with widespread warmth around Wembley Stadium. The fans could see it too.
As a professional footballer I was always at my best when playing for a manager or coach that believed in me, and trusted me to do the right things. You’re free to play your own game.
Gaffers that were constantly on my back, barking out orders, or taking me in and out of the team, would rarely see me at my best. In situations like that, players try too hard to impress and that’s when mistakes are made. Smalling’s red card at the Etihad was perhaps a fine example.
When you have the full trust of your manager it’s a wonderful thing.
As long as he stays on the right side of a man that’s known to spontaneously combust with his players from time-to-time, United’s ‘third captain’ should continue to go from strength to strength.
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