Just about ten months ago, Chris Smalling hit perhaps the lowest point of his professional career after picking up two yellow cards in eight minutes to reduce his team to ten men against Manchester City.
At the time, Manchester United were sitting in eighth place in the Premier League and were unanimous underdogs heading into the match against their cross-city rivals.
With Smalling sent to the dressing room, City eventually broke through in the 63rd minute when Sergio Aguero slotted in what would turn out to be the only goal of the contest.
Although United put up a good fight during the defeat, Smalling became the focal point of abuse and criticize from fans and pundits respectively following the derby defeat. The 25-year-old would then spend the rest of the 2014-15 campaign battling injuries and poor form, with United’s overall defending bordering on comical for the remainder of the season.
As the summer transfer window approached, many expected manager Louis van Gaal to sign a world class center-back, and the futures of Smalling and Phil Jones looked to be in jeopardy.
SEE MORE: Read Manchester United’s 2015/16 season preview.
However, while Jones has yet to suit up this season, Smalling has transformed into a commanding presence at the center of United’s back four. The player who seemed passive and indecisive for the better part of 20140-15 is now an imposing figure who is being looked to for leadership.
After spending several seasons playing behind legendary United defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the 25-year-old centre-back is finally showing the characteristics once showcased by the former Red Devils.
United have started the season with three successive clean sheets in the Premier League, with only a Michael Carrick own goal against Club Brugge in the Champions League play-off as the team’s only defensive blip.
Smalling is enjoying his new role as the bully of United’s back four, as well as his one-on-one battles with the leagues top strikers.
“That is the case. I have always liked that competition with the striker and obviously Daley [Blind] is not that sort of center-back who is going to dominate, so it’s a case of I take that mantle on and I am enjoying it,” Smalling told the Manchester Evening News.
“I wouldn’t say I hadn’t done it previously in games because I feel like I bullied quite a few players in matches.
“But it’s a case of making sure there is that consistency and, hopefully, I can get that consistency where it can be on show every week.
“I feel like I am playing well and I am enjoying my football.
“It is good to keep playing each game and knowing that there are not too many changes at the moment because we are doing well, so I hope to keep that up.”
Smalling went on to say that Van Gaal has asked United defenders to take on a bigger role within the team. The Dutchman would like to see them do a better job at bringing the ball out of defense.
“He wants the center-backs to be the playmakers so when you see an opportunity it’s just a case of making sure you take it,” the England international added.
“All throughout the years here the center-backs have brought it out. Playing alongside Rio or Nemanja Vidic, you take turns in bringing it out, it is nothing new.”
United dropped their first points of the new seasons on Saturday against Newcastle. But Smalling says his side won’t let the weekend’s setback affect them when they travel to Belgium on Wednesday for the second leg of the Champions League play-off with Brugge.
“We haven’t got a full week to feel sorry for ourselves, we are disappointed about the Newcastle game but the good thing is we now have arguably the biggest game of the season.
“We will turn our attentions to that and we will take a lot of our positives from the first game when we played Brugge here,” Smalling concluded.
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