“I think if he plays for Manchester United on a regular basis he would certainly be in my squad.”
Many noted the latent hypocrisy in Sam Allardyce’s words. The new England manager was explaining the omission of Marcus Rashford from his first squad – an understandable decision, but one which was met with consternation.
‘But Daniel Sturridge has hardly played,’ some protested, despite the striker having started one game and featured for 65 league minutes of this embryonic season; Rashford has 19 minutes – however impressive they were – to his name. ‘What about Joe Hart?’ others added. It is, of course, a rather different matter for goalkeepers, particularly when the Manchester City outcast’s understudies are so inexperienced at international level.
Few questioned the inclusion of Rashford’s club teammate, Chris Smalling. But, of the 23 members of Allardyce’s first England squad, the centre-half is the furthest from playing on a regular basis for his club.
The summer began with Smalling a bonafide first choice for club and country; the season begins with the defender having lost his starting place at Manchester United, and his spot with England is now in serious jeopardy. If Allardyce is demanding his players to be featuring regularly for their clubs, he is unlikely to be impressed by Smalling’s two minutes from three games.
The 26-year-old, having enjoyed his most promising campaign as a professional last season, now finds himself on the United bench – a situation no fan could have predicted in May. Suspension ruled him out of the first game; the form of his contemporaries has restricted him since.
It was expected that he was a future club captain, and Daley Blind and Eric Bailly would compete to feature alongside him. Instead, the aforementioned pair have formed a delightful central-defensive union. It is an endearing and successful combination, and one which has formed part of the best defence in the league so far, conceding just once.
Bailly in particular has been a revelation, and the similarities he and Smalling share in their physical attributes mean it is likely they will battle for the place alongside Blind. It is a battle the £30m Villarreal arrival is comfortably winning. To compare his per-game stats to those of Smalling last season shows that Bailly makes more tackles (2.3 to 1.6) and clearances (5.3 to 5.1), while, most interestingly, considering it is the Ivorian’s supposed weakness, his 95.5% passing accuracy far outweighs his rival’s 82.4%. Three games is admittedly a sample too small to draw too many decisive conclusions, but Bailly has looked great.
As good as Smalling was last season, the 26-year-old endured a dip in form post-Christmas. Bailly has made the transition to United seamlessly, and it will be interesting to watch as he continues his development. Unfortunately for Smalling, that must come at his expense.
His manager has been suitably impressed. Mourinho praised Bailly’s “big personality” and “great qualities” last month. As long as Blind’s excellent performances also continue, it is difficult to argue Smalling’s case. He must now play a patient game, performing in training and in games where required, but waiting for either of the individuals ahead of him to allow their form to slip. Even at this early stage, that does not seem forthcoming.
What’s worse, his closest rivals at international level are enjoying stellar form too. Allardyce’s first squad features four central defenders. Two are over 30, but Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have been revitalised under new club management. One is the inexperienced 22-year-old John Stones, who has also impressed. Smalling, at 26, is the sole member hitting his supposed peak age, and yet his is the career which has stalled at this juncture.
‘There can surely be no new national manager who sees anything other than a Smalling/Stones partnership in England’s immediate future and few who would not now give him the captain’s armband,’ this website wrote in June. Three months later, and there is serious doubt as to whether he will even start the first game of the new era on Sunday against Slovakia.
It has been a tough few months for Smalling. He was a teacher’s pet under both Louis van Gaal and Roy Hodgson, but new headmaster Jose Mourinho has sent him to the back of the class. He is in danger of befalling the same fate under Allardyce.