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Opinion: How Chris Smalling can slot into Fonseca's system
Illustration by Vinnotsaurus (@vinnot86)

Defender Chris Smalling could make his Roma debut against Sassuolo on Sunday - but how will he fit into the side? Our columnist takes a look...

The summer of 2019 proved to be another period of transition for the Giallorossi, with the arrival of a new manager, sporting director and a whole host of fresh faces signalling the start of a Roma revolution.

New sporting director Gianluca Petrachi was tasked with overhauling the 2018-19 squad, and addressing the deficiencies which cost the side a Champions League spot.

The former Torino chief's main task was to bring a new focus and cohesion to the squad - while keeping outgoings and incomings within an appropriate financial framework.

With stalwart defender Kostas Manolas one of the players departing, finding a new defensive option eventually became a priority. After a long look at a number of options, Petrachi eventually landed the signature of Manchester United star Chris Smalling on a season-long loan.

Smalling's signing was met with a great deal of curiosity in the Italian capital, particularly regarding the calibre of the player and how well he will fit into Paulo Fonseca’s dynamic system.

Smalling arrived at Old Trafford in 2010, as the expected heir to the throne of warriors Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

The 29-year-old has been a loyal servant to Man Utd over the past nine years, but it’s perhaps fair to say that Smalling never quite hit the heights that were set for him, albeit amid difficult circumstances, and the England star, like so many of his teammates at the time, inevitably became a lightning rod for fans’ criticism.

His performances were not the worst in the red shirt of Manchester during that period however, as the hierarchy went through a number of high-profile managers and players but were never able to deliver consistent success.

The former Fulham man could also consider himself rather unlucky that his spell in Manchester coincided with the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, throwing the club into a slumber from which they have arguably still been unable to wake.

Smalling is fortunate however, to have worked with some of the best defensive coaches in the world, the aforementioned Ferguson being one, along with Louis van Gaal and the tactical maestro Jose Mourinho.

The new Roma signing’s game improved over time, even if the Red Devils’ results did not. Smalling was a key figure in Van Gaal’s backline, and the England international developed a strong partnership with Ajax defender Daley Blind.

The Dutchman was much more comfortable in possession and regularly stepped out of defence with the ball to help launch attacks – much like Roma’s very own Federico Fazio can do. Smalling provided the perfect foil for his marauding partner, covering the space left by his teammate and marshalling the back four until Blind returned from his escapades.

It was a balance which proved successful for Man Utd during the 2015-16 season, as they began to find their feet following the David Moyes era. Blind’s role as a ball-playing centre-back allowed Smalling to focus on his defensive responsibilities, which undoubtedly culminated in his best spell in a Red Devils shirt.

Fonseca will be hoping that his new defender can recapture the form he showed under Van Gaal, form that led him to be regularly picked for England, and that he may become be a central figure in the former Shakhtar manager’s plans.

The Portuguese boss’ philosophy is exciting, to say the least. His courageous style forces his players to perform an intense press high up the pitch, retain possession as quickly as possible and overload the opposition’s half with rapid counter-attacks.

It’s an offensive strategy which requires strong, aggressive centre-backs who are able to read the game perceptively and defend on the front foot.

Fortunately for Roma, intercepting passes and providing a destructive presence is Smalling’s bread and butter.

The Giallorossi have made a promising, if slightly erratic, start to the new campaign. A mind-boggling 3-3 draw with Genoa was followed by a pulsating 1-1 draw in the Derby della Capitale against Lazio. Both tests highlighted the various aspects of the new manager’s philosophy - and gave supporters a glimpse of what to expect this season.

Terrific flowing moves up the pitch have been met in equal measure by defensive gaps and panicked decision-making at the back - especially during the season opener against Genoa - as players take time to adjust to their new roles.

While ‘Comandante’ Fazio has shown flashes of the monstrous form he enjoyed a couple of years ago, others are still adapting to Fonseca’s new style of play. It’s clear that although comfort in possession is not an absolute must for the centre-backs, they do have to defend on the front foot and seek the ball quickly to kickstart their rampant attacks.

Smalling shares similarities with his potential defensive partner Fazio, with both players relying on their excellent spatial awareness and reading of the game as their strongest attribute.

The Englishman is no slouch though. His speed across the pitch is impressive and he can make excellent recovery tackles when required.

Smalling is also a commanding presence, both physically and verbally, and the new No. 6 wins the majority of his aerial duels, towering over attackers with his powerful frame.

The former Maidstone United defender also grew to be an authoritative figure at Old Trafford, captaining the side on numerous occasions and rallying his troops when times were tough.

If there’s one thing Roma will always welcome, it’s a strong character who can galvanise a side.

The new system in place seems set to result in endless amounts of fun and goals, but Romanisti hearts will be in mouths for the entire 90 minutes.

The idea behind Fonseca’s 100mph football is that the Giallorossi will score far more than their opposition and be out of sight as quickly as possible.

But football doesn’t always work like that, especially for Roma. The defenders will be as crucial to Fonseca’s success as the attackers, and their job is to win the ball so urgently that they don’t need to defend deep in their own box. 

Smalling appears to tick those boxes for Fonseca. A leader, a commanding, aggressive presence with bags of experience at an elite level, and a knowledge and awareness of the game that will help him to be a success in Serie A.

Calm on the ball, he can cover for others to do more of the heavy lifting in that regard.

Many pundits and supporters will be watching with intrigue for the day Smalling makes his Roma debut, with fewer expectations and more curiosity about how he copes in his new surroundings.

It may take a few games for the ex-Man Utd star to settle in and adapt to a new system, a different culture and an alien league, but when the moment arrives, Smalling could be set to slot elegantly into the system around him.

 
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