As Manchester United prepare to take on their city rivals on Sunday, they will be relying more than ever on Chris Smalling to put in the type of performance the fans have become accustomed to this season.
Manchester City have been in rampant form following the heavy defeat suffered at White Hart Lane. They hit Newcastle for 6, followed by 5 more against a decent Bournemouth side. It was Raheem Sterling that caught the eye in their last Premier League game, scoring his first hat-trick for the club.
United will need to be on red alert to handle an inform Sterling, and they will need to rely on the impressive Smalling to lead the challenge. In recent seasons in seemed as if Smalling’s progress had stalled, however, his form this season has been a revelation and will have pleased Van Gaal if not even surprised him. It was an area of the team that had been identified for reinforcements. However, only Arsenal and Tottenham have conceded fewer goals.
United have historically had a very strong core, and world-class centre back pairings. They have had the likes of Bruce, Pallister, Vidic, Stam and Ferdinand gracing the field, and with his recent performances Smalling will be hoping to join that illustrious list. The fact that Van Gaal has made him the third captain shows the confidence he now has in his centre back and the progress he continues to make.
Ironically the injury to Jones earlier this season could have played a significant role in Smalling’s progress this season. It led to Blind partnering Smalling, and his calmness and ability to distribute the ball from the back at ease appears to have helped Smalling gain confidence and take control himself.
Van Gaal will now want to see progress continuing, and the game on Sunday is a major test to see how far Smalling has come.