Chris Smalling and Roma: The story of a remarkable season together

And just like that, it was over. Nearly a whole year after joining on loan, it was confirmed that Chris Smalling had played his last game for Roma.

Of this season, at least. Every fan will retain a glimmer of hope deep in their heart that Smalling can return next year. But unlike most of his teammates, who still have the Europa League to look forward to, Smalling will play no further part in 2019-20.

Whether he gets to feature for Roma next season or not, the story of Chris Smalling’s first season in Serie A will not be forgotten any time soon.

It was late in the summer transfer window in 2019, a period in which Roma had been chasing a centre-back – thought at the time to most likely be Dejan Lovren or Daniele Rugani – when news emerged out of the blue that the club were considering a third profile for the position. A ‘Mister X’, as Alessandro Austini, the man who broke the news, described him.

The identity of that defensive target became clear the following morning, August 29th, when Austini suggested that the man Roma were after was Chris Smalling.

  

It was an interesting update, to say the least. Fans across the world did not know quite what to expect. In England, he was respected by some, but others felt he had made too many errors throughout his time with Manchester United. Over in Italy, he was hardly a household name.

But things escalated quickly, and by the 30th, Smalling’s loan to Roma had been confirmed.

The Englishman was deemed to be a good fit for new coach Paulo Fonseca’s preferred style of play. Fonseca wanted his defenders to be brave, playing a high line and showing commitment.

  

Upon his arrival, Smalling said the move to Roma was a “perfect opportunity” for him, after a couple of mixed seasons at United. He vowed to “hit the ground running” – and despite a brief delay, he certainly achieved that. In fact, he never really slowed down.

After taking the legendary number six shirt – made iconic at Roma by Aldair, who represented the club for more than a decade and won Serie A in that time – there was pressure on Smalling to perform. The jersey had been retired after Aldair’s departure, and only Kevin Strootman had worn it since.

Smalling’s first taste of Roma saw him feature on the bench for Roma’s second game of the season – the Derby Della Capitale against Lazio. Even though he did not play, it was a huge occasion to be involved in.

Fans had to wait a little longer to see him in action due to a minor injury suffered shortly after. But the Manchester United loanee was finally able to make his debut on matchday five, against Atalanta.

Even then, Roma knew they had a top player at their disposal. Smalling impressed against the Bergamo side, even though his new club ended up losing. Timing his challenges well, he made a positive first impression.

With that hurdle overcome, Smalling soon built up a solid run in the team. He started Roma’s next 10 Serie A games.

During that run, he became the first Englishman to ever score for Roma, when he netted in a 4-0 win at Udinese in October. Then in November, two days after celebrating his 30th birthday, he scored and assisted in a 3-0 win over Brescia. Smalling was becoming decisive at both ends.

  

Already, there was talk of a potential permanent deal for Smalling – as well as the chance that he could regain his place in the England national team two years after his last cap.

The former Fulham defender had even earned praise from the man whose shirt he had inherited in Rome. Aldair said at the start of October that Smalling was going to be “very useful” for Roma throughout the season. He wasn’t wrong.

Smalling’s rapid rise reached a high point when he wore the captain’s armband for the first time, in the 3-0 win over Istanbul Basaksehir in the Europa League. When Edin Dzeko went off, the Bosnian chose to pass the armband onto Smalling.

  

“The players know who the leaders are out there,” Fonseca enthused after about a decision that was Dzeko’s, not his. The coach was more than happy to see Smalling assume that role of responsibility, ever so briefly.

After a challenging but rewarding Autumn for the squad as a whole, in which Gianluca Mancini – a fellow summer arrival – had to step forward into midfield to cover amid an injury crisis, Smalling continued to establish himself at the heart of Roma’s defence.

With the midfield sufficiently re-stocked by the end of November, Mancini dropped back into defence. From then on, his partnership with Smalling really began to blossom.

“It’s something that is difficult to explain, sometimes we understand each other with a look,” Mancini said in December. Elaborating further on how they had formed such a successful partnership, the Italian added: “He is someone who always gives everything, though, and that’s what I love about him.”

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Mancini wasn’t the only one loving Smalling by this point. The now-30-year-old was a genuine fans’ favourite. As the January transfer window approached, Roma were desperate to keep him.

Back in England, though, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kept insisting that Smalling was still their player. All Roma fans could do was hope for the best, and enjoy it while it lasted.

Smalling made that easy enough. As the season resumed after the winter break, Roma’s form stuttered, but the Englishman kept up his usual standards.

After sitting out the reverse fixture shortly after his arrival, Smalling played in his first Rome derby in late January. The scoreline was exactly the same as back in September: a 1-1 draw. Smalling was arguably Roma’s best player in that game.

Time and time again, he was rising to the challenges put in front of him. Smalling started all nine of Roma’s Serie A matches between the start of the New Year and the suspension of the league amid the coronavirus outbreak. To Fonseca, he was indispensable.

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Partway through that spell of games, Smalling was attracting media interest back home. For example, in February, he told Sky Sports how grateful he was for the love he had received from his new fans in Rome, before admitting he had an “interesting decision” on his hands.

Indeed, by this point, there was only one party left to really convince. That was Manchester United. At Roma, the opinion was unanimous – Smalling was someone they had to build around.

During the three-month break while the pandemic took its toll on Italy, Fonseca reiterated how important Smalling had been to him so far. Describing him as “extraordinary”, “intelligent” and “nearly unbeatable in one-on-ones”, the Giallorossi coach did little to hide his desire for a permanent move for Smalling.

Fonseca used the word “extraordinary” again when speaking anew about Smalling in May. All along, it has been the right word. Extraordinary is exactly what this journey has been.

When Serie A finally returned in June, Smalling was back to his best in no time at all. Roma’s initial form after the re-start was very mixed, but they eventually closed the season on an eight-game unbeaten run.

Smalling missed the first four of those games through injury, but played every single minute of the last four – scoring his third goal for the club with a towering header in the penultimate game against Torino.

  

The lineup Smalling had returned to was quite different from the one he had last played in. Fonseca had made Roma switch to a 3-4-2-1, rather than their usual 4-2-3-1, in order to reverse their faltering fortunes.

It did the trick, and Smalling adapted to his new role in the middle of the back three with ease. He continued to dominate in the air and on the ground, in possession and out of it.

Only dribbled past three times in Serie A all season – less than Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly or Juventus’ Matthijs De Ligt, even with both playing fewer games than him – Smalling excelled with his timing of challenges.

Furthermore, he made more blocks than any other Roma player. In fact, he was the only member of his squad to average more than one per match.

Smalling read the play well at all times. And perhaps most emphatically of all, he won nearly 100 aerial duels in league games alone.

On the ball, he excelled as well. Even some of his detractors back in England admit he has always been good at pure defending; it has been the work on the ball that has split opinion in the past. But in Fonseca’s system, he had to play out from the back.

Concern over his ability to do so was one of the reasons Gareth Southgate had jettisoned him from the England squad in recent years. But Smalling had no problem at all fitting in with Roma’s possession style.

His ability on the ball perhaps went unrecognised – but not to Southgate, who made a public apology for his previous doubting of the player. Of all the players to make more than 10 Serie A appearances for Roma this season, none had a higher pass completion rate than Smalling’s 90.5%.

Numbers and words can’t really do justice to how good Smalling has been, though. His form has had to be seen to be believed.

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Unfortunately, Roma will not get to see him again this year. With the Europa League extended into August, and with parent club Man Utd still in the same competition, the Giallorossi have not been allowed to keep Smalling.

After the announcement, the 30-year-old said he was “gutted”, although he wished his teammates the best of luck for their upcoming showdown with Sevilla. At this point, it really feels as if Smalling wants to stay.

Whether or not Roma can reach a permanent deal later down the line, it should not take away from just how good Smalling has been this season.

The Englishman was a breath of fresh air, giving Roma’s defence a new lease of life. Barely anyone thought about the loss of Kostas Manolas, who had left the club after five years to join Napoli. Smalling came in and exceeded all expectations.

As he returns to England, fans will be hoping it is a ‘see you later’, not a goodbye. But even if it is the latter, this has been a remarkable journey. If Smalling doesn’t return, he will be very hard to replace.

But that is a question for another day. Right now, all the attention should be directed towards giving Chris Smalling the appreciation he deserves. He came to a new, challenging environment, and won everyone over with his commitment and quality.

Grazie, Chris.

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