England have been knocked out of the World Cup and it is categorically and exclusively because they didn’t take Chris Smalling. Or something like that.
Prior to the 2022 tournament in Qatar, Roma had two players in their squad who could have made it into Gareth Southgate’s squad. The England manager has been aware of Tammy Abraham’s form since his move to Serie A, but in all honesty, his performances this season did not warrant a place on the plane.
In contrast, Southgate’s continued decision to overlook Smalling has baffled those watching him in Italy week in and week out. The former Manchester United man has earned widespread appreciation during his time as a Roma player, enjoying a particularly impressive 2022.
After winning the Europa Conference League with Roma in May as man of the match, Smalling has continued to show his importance to Roma in the new season. Sadly, when Southgate went to watch him and Abraham in September against Udinese, Jose Mourinho’s men let in four goals.
It wasn’t an accurate depiction of what Smalling has been like for Roma recently – it isn’t a stretch to suggest most would class him as the club’s best player this season other than Paulo Dybala – so perhaps he deserved a closer look.
Indeed, there are several statistics that prove Smalling could have offered more than any of the five other centre-backs Southgate did take with him to Qatar (Conor Coady, Eric Dier, Harry Maguire, John Stones and Benjamin White). Here, Giallorossi Yorkshire picks out one per player (from this season’s league matches, per 90 minutes) to illustrate why Roma’s number six should have been at the World Cup.
One of the only departments in which Smalling has fared worse than those that did make it to Qatar is tackling. But sometimes, that can be a good thing if it is as a side effect of a defender being more proactive and preventing the danger before it comes.
In this case, Smalling is the joint-leader along with Maguire in terms of the number of interceptions he averages. In contrast to Coady, to illustrate, Roma’s defensive rock averages a full one more interception per 90 minutes of league action (1.6 compared to 0.6).
It is perhaps a sign that he is more alert to danger than the man on loan at Everton from Wolves.
Smalling and Dier are two interesting players to compare, for a couple of reasons. Tactically, they both feature in the middle of a back three at club level. Furthermore, both have faded from the international picture in recent years before building their fortunes back up at club level – but it is only Dier to have earned an England recall.
Despite this, Smalling has averaged more than one clearance more than Dier per 90 minutes (4.6 compared to 3.2). Indeed, none of the other centre-backs who went to Qatar can outrank Roma’s number six in this department.
In terms of averting additional danger, Smalling stands supreme.
In an indirect way, Roma fans have a lot to thank Sheffield-born Harry Maguire for. It was his move from Leicester to Manchester United that effectively pushed Smalling to Serie A in 2019.
Since then, Maguire has struggled to justify his price tag, leading some United fans to conclude they would’ve been better off keeping Smalling. Fortunately, Roma are having the last laugh thanks to how the ex-Fulham man has proven his doubters wrong in Italy.
Maguire’s statistics for this season are perhaps not the most reliable sample due to his relative lack of gametime. That said, one noteworthy conclusion is how Smalling is a tidier player than the United captain, since he averages half as many fouls as him (0.5 compared to 1).
John StonesEmbed from Getty Images
Somewhat like Maguire, Manchester City’s John Stones didn’t go into the World Cup with a great deal of playing time at club level under his belt – albeit a bit more than his centre-back partner – but has retained his status as a go-to man for Southgate.
Clearly, playing under Pep Guardiola is a different experience for a defender than playing under Jose Mourinho, so there are some noticeable differences between Stones’ stats and Smalling’s.
Roma’s man averages four times as many interceptions (1.6 compared to 0.4) and more than three times the number of clearances (4.6 compared to 1.4), for example, but the area in which he outranks him most convincingly is blocking shots.
Smalling has got in the way of over quadruple the number of shots per 90 minutes that Stones has, with 0.9 compared to 0.2. It may feel like there have been more to face, which might explain it, but Smalling has still dealt well with what has come at him.
Comparing White to Smalling might be a bit unfair, since the Arsenal man has largely played at right-back this season for his club, but he went to Qatar (although he returned home early for personal reasons) with the intention of competing for a place centrally for England.
However, one interesting observation is that White has been dribbled past twice as often as Smalling this season (0.6 compared to 0.3).
Perhaps by playing as a full-back, he has encountered more willing runners against him, but White has not been as resistant to those kind of opponents as Smalling as from his more central position.
The fact that White is also committing more fouls on average than Smalling suggests the Roma player is more reliable than the ex-Leeds loanee when an opponent is coming towards him.
ConclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Any semi-regular reader of this site knows how highly rated Smalling is at Giallorossi Yorkshire HQ.
He has been doing English supporters of Roma proud for a number of years now, and it is just a shame that he hasn’t been given the chance to do his country proud as a whole.
Some back home have been taking note of his status as one of Serie A’s best centre-backs, but the recognition hasn’t quite stretched to within the England camp. Sadly, since he will be 34 by the time the next major tournament, Euro 2024, comes around, the ship might really have sailed.
Smalling deserved more in the twilight years of his career, in which he has written plenty of positive chapters with Roma. And while the claim at the start of this article that England didn’t win the World Cup solely because of his absence was tongue in cheek, he might just have made a difference.
Oh well. He’s still ours.