Manchester United’s defenders were shown for their mediocrity against an ultimately mediocre, although fired up, Hull City side.
On last week’s episode (S2 E22 – Rooney x250), I complained at length about Chris Smalling’s distinct lack of quality, his lack of composure, his lack of a footballing brain.
It wasn’t just the clumsy Englishman who showed such qualities, or lack thereof. On Thursday night, United were lethargic and hardly showed up until Rashford finally found a way through against David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone. The common belief in football is that the attackers are the culprits for a poor attack. Yet Thursday night showed how much a defence can impact, negatively, an attack.
Lining up with a back four composed of three centre-backs, with Marcos Rojo at left-back, Mourinho’s best ball-playing defender in the side wasn’t playing centrally. It was Rojo who, for all his faults on the left, showed he has some quality. Smalling and Matteo Darmian continued a run of awful games that are hardly out of the ordinary.
Stoke City was evidence that Smalling is neither England nor Manchester United standard, a 2-1 defeat at Hull City was too. Louis van Gaal managed to form a side that exaggerated the qualities of its defence. Such was the monotonous, defensive football of van Gaal that rather than Smalling quality, and Daley Blind’s, being the instigator for defensive success, it was the midfield and attack protecting the defence. United were so compact throughout the side that the frailties of the defence could not be shown. At the Emirates, and at White Hart Lane, van Gaal’s mediocre defence was exposed for what it really was.
While “Mike Smalling” put in some excellent performances in van Gaal’s second season, he has put in none under Mourinho. He is ill-disciplined and clumsy. That could be forgivable if he had stupendously good ability on the ball, or his timing in the tackle was wonderful. Yet his positioning, as shown for Michael Dawson’s chance early on in Thursday’s game and for Stoke’s early goal on Saturday, is not good enough. His ability on the ball is unforgivably, and honestly unbelievably, bad. Against Hull, Smalling made fewer passes than anyone on the pitch, even David de Gea. He made only one tackle, one interception. There were nine clearances, though. There were even more clearances against Stoke, where he cleared the ball 13 times.
On paper, that looks good. But when you really consider what a clearance is, it is, usually but not always, an attempt to get rid of the ball when you cannot, or don’t have the confidence to, pass it. A defender is not simply to hook the ball away like Joe Root. Smalling looks more uncomfortable on the ball than any other defender I’ve seen in a United shirt. When the ball comes onto his left foot, he almost always cuts across his own goal and plays it to his centre-back partner, who is now under pressure from the striker.
Smalling not only plays badly himself, loses possession needlessly, wastes chances to build from the back, he also drags down his teammates to his level because he forces them under pressure too. Smalling gives the opposition chances, doesn’t take them away. He left space for Dawson on Thursday, at every possible opportunity he gets rid of the ball. But he’s not getting rid of the ball, he’s either launching it upfield straight back into the possession of the opposition and launching it as close to Row Z as he can manage.
Defenders are the base on which attacks are built, particularly when sitting back. Smalling lacks the composure and footballing brain to be a defender in a Manchester United side. Both Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are waiting for chances and a clumsy oaf is taking that away from them, dragging down his teammates.
Matteo Darmian cannot escape from criticism, either. Despite an excellent start to his United career, since his first injury in a Red shirt, Darmian has looked average and nothing more. He lacks attacking prowess, something United fans despise having been treated to the brave Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva in recent years.
Darmian is another defender who cannot be trusted at the back. Positionally, he often lacks concentration, or simply awareness. On the ball, similarly to Smalling, he lacks the composure needed to calm the game down rather than inviting pressure on himself by launching the ball this way or that.
If Manchester United’s defence is being exposed against Stoke and Hull, you can only wonder how average, if not bad, it would look against a top side with elite attacking players. It might have looked good at times this season, but certain players need to be let go, Smalling and Darmian included.