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Opinion: How centurion Smalling carved out a key role in Rome

Our columnist takes a look at the impact Chris Smalling has had at Roma, after he reached the milestone of 100 games for the club in midweek...

When Chris Smalling was summoned to the pitch on Tuesday, entering the fray at Stadio Olimpico, it meant he was about to hit a landmark to emphasise his status as one of the standout Roma players of recent times.

This was the day in which Smalling became a Roma centurion.

Having reached 100 appearances for Roma during the early stages of his fourth season with the club, the English defender has cemented his reputation in Italy.

Smalling arrived at Roma on an initial loan deal from Manchester United late in the summer of 2019, prompting his first experience of playing for a club outside his native country.

Identified as an ideal defender for the style of Paulo Fonseca, the club’s new coach at the time, the Englishman was brought in to partner another fellow new face, Gianluca Mancini.

After spending the best part of a decade in Manchester, winning eight trophies with United, the move to Roma represented a new challenge for an experienced player who required a fresh start after seeing his opportunities reduce at Old Trafford. He could have fallen into a safety net of signing for another Premier League club, but took it upon himself to test his abilities in a new environment.

Fortunately, he took to it almost instantly.

Smalling’s first taste of being in a Roma matchday squad, although he didn’t make it onto the pitch, was a derby draw with Lazio at the start of September. It served as a glimpse into the cauldron he was stepping into.

Later that month came his on-field debut in a defeat to Atalanta. Despite the result, it became a personal springboard for Smalling, who earned his role as a regular starter practically from that point on.

Indeed, it wasn’t long before he was handed the captain’s armband by Edin Dzeko for the closing stages of one match against Istanbul Basaksehir in the Europa League. He was already being recognised as a leader by many his teammates.

By the end of his loan season with the club, Smalling had amassed 37 appearances in Roma colours, including 30 in Serie A (in which Fonseca’s side finished fifth). His form throughout garnered widespread acclaim from observers in Italy and England alike.

It made the decision for Roma to sign him permanently an easy one, although there were still factors for Smalling himself to weigh up while the club negotiated to the deadline with Manchester United. Eventually, he backed up his conviction to take a path less travelled by signing for Roma for good in October 2020.

Unfortunately, his delayed return and a range of injuries meant he featured in fewer than half of Roma’s league games in 2020-21; he was restricted to 21 appearances in all competitions.

But with the appointment of his former Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho, ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, there was the chance for another new dawn for Smalling.

Roma’s No. 6 soon discovered a good understanding with Mourinho after their reunion, regaining his trust in new surroundings. Like under Fonseca, Smalling often found himself playing in the middle of a back three for Mourinho, usually in between Mancini and Roger Ibanez, from which position he could command the defence, win duels and influence proceedings from deep.

In turn, he embarked upon an impeccable campaign that put the previous season behind him. Somewhat remarkably, Smalling went through the entire season without receiving a single yellow card from any of his 38 appearances, an indication of the composure and class with which he was going about his business.

It culminated in a significant contribution to Roma’s first trophy in 14 years; Smalling was the man of the match in the Europa Conference League final victory against Feyenoord.

Roma kept a clean sheet in that showpiece, as Smalling helped nullify the competition’s top scorer, Cyriel Dessers. It was the latest in a long line of examples in which the centre-back silenced an opponent’s main threat.

As a reward, Smalling got the second European medal of his career, after previously winning the Europa League with Mourinho for Manchester United.

Mourinho could now call upon Smalling as one of the building blocks of his developing Roma project. A well-earned landmark would be on the horizon for the 32-year-old soon into his next term with the club.

On the fourth matchday of the 2022-23 Serie A season, Smalling came on as a substitute in the first half of a home win against Monza to bring up his Roma century. By reaching the landmark, he has become just the fourth English player to make 100 appearances in all competitions for a single Serie A side, after AC Milan’s Ray Wilkins, Torino’s Gerry Hitchens and Sampdoria’s Trevor Francis.

There have been a handful of other English players to reach a century of games in Italy, but in some cases, they have done so with those outings spread across multiple clubs or including stints in Serie B.

Smalling – whose century has comprised 77 Serie A appearances, three in the Coppa Italia, plus 10 each in the Europa League and Conference League; he has scored eight goals along the way – is part of a select top-level group, then.

The player from Greenwich is further cementing the legacy of the inspirational story of what he is achieving in Rome.

For perspective, Smalling has played more games for the club than many of the most famous English names to represent other Italian teams; David Beckham didn’t play this much for Milan, nor did Paul Gascoigne for Lazio or Paul Ince for Inter.

The story Smalling is writing deserves major appreciation.

Indeed, he has established his importance for one of the bigger clubs in a league renowned for its emphasis on defensive intelligence.

Smalling has certainly earned the respect of his peers and outside observers, regaining his own reputation to enjoy a late career renaissance.

By this point, while also proving himself a worthy inheritor of the No. 6 jersey once worn by club legend Aldair, he has justified his nickname of ‘Smalldini’, which started as something of a tongue-in-cheek pun, but in time has become an appropriate moniker.

Of course he isn’t Paolo Maldini, but he has accustomed himself exceptionally well to the art of defending in Italy.

And Smalling makes it an art. His reading of the game tends to be exemplary; the timing of his challenges is frequently a picture of perfection. He is an intelligent leader through his actions, bringing a sense of security to a key department.

One hundred games on, Smalling can undoubtedly reflect on his union with Roma as the right decision – and one he has made the most of.

As the journey continues, he keeps setting an impressive example.


Follow Samuel Bannister on Twitter: @SamBanno1

 
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