Following the confirmation of Jose Mourinho as the next Roma manager, much was made of his past tensions with Chris Smalling.
One of four current Roma players – along with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pedro and Davide Santon – to have worked with Mourinho before, Smalling was there for the entire duration of the Special One’s time at Manchester United. On the surface, it appeared their relationship was fractious; Mourinho criticised Smalling in public for anything from his fitness to his hairstyle.
After the Englishman struggled with at least one of those aspects in his second season in Rome, it has led to some worries that he may suffer when he reunites with Mourinho.
But beneath all those quips, perhaps there is more to it. Mourinho has often tried to provoke a reaction with his public comments about players, but it does not mean he does not appreciate them.
Smalling once reflected that Mourinho was merely being professional by talking about him in such a manner. On the training ground, only they know how they really got on, but both still have the desire to win.
Yes, Smalling was criticised under Mourinho before. But he also won the EFL Cup and Europa League with him in charge, captaining his side in the final of the former and playing all 90 minutes of the latter. It may not have seemed like it sometimes, but there is a mutual respect and trust there.
So much so, that when there were doubts last summer about whether Roma could sign Smalling permanently after his loan from Man Utd, Mourinho’s Tottenham were reportedly one of the other teams trying to take him. If that was true, the coach must have remembered some of Smalling’s better qualities and believed in his value.
Perhaps it was telling that Smalling turned up at Trigoria on the same day as Mourinho’s arrival. Whether they spoke in person is unclear, but they will have been in contact in some way. Mourinho needs leaders at Roma and with the commitment he seems to be showing, Smalling can be one of them.
People must remember that Smalling’s struggles last season largely stemmed from a lack of a pre-season. Now, for the first of his three Roma seasons, he will be there from the start of the summer. Mourinho is ready to whip the squad into shape and, if Smalling gets through these next few weeks, it could be the foundations for a more successful year – even if some are not expecting that with his new coach.
Not everyone responds to Mourinho’s methods, and they may not have been ideal before for Smalling, but at least he knows them and has still tasted success on such terms. Both men are professionals and, under these circumstances, might just be able to make it work.