Perhaps it’s for the best that Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, whose latest injury is set to rule him out, will not be paired together when Manchester United face Sevilla on Wednesday.
“As soon as they play against quality, they’re all over the place,” Paul Scholes said on Saturday, his BT punditry typically acerbic towards his old club. The 11-time Premier League champion was talking candidly about former teammates, and showing little fear for their feelings.
When Scholes retired from football in 2013, the duo were expected to be United’s centre-backs for years to come but are now regarded by many fans as “terrible twins”, a combination to watch through the fingers. Should Sevilla be negotiated, the prospect of this deadly-for-the-wrong-reasons duo facing down Messi, Ronaldo or Lewandowski is positively frightening, though very possibly highly amusing for those who don’t support United.
That Smalling and Jones remain United regulars almost five years on is far more reflective of the club’s repeated missteps than their actual aptitude for the job. Since Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both took their leave of Manchester in the summer of 2014, United have singularly failed to sign centre-backs with even a fraction of that pair’s poise and effectiveness.
The former understudies’ United careers since have been chock-full of inconsistency and misfortune, particularly on the injury front for Jones, who even at 25 has far too many wasted years behind him. A player freely compared to John Terry in his Blackburn Rovers days, with immense physical attributes and a deceptive amount of pace, has not clocked up enough football to be a cornerstone of the defence, let alone match the high expectations Sir Alex Ferguson once placed on him.
“The way he is looking, [he] could be our best ever player,” said Ferguson, whose exuberance might be explained by his making that prediction on the night when United collected the 13th and final title of his reign. Jones has fallen way short, while Smalling, snatched from Arsene Wenger’s grasp in 2010, has also failed to live up to Ferguson’s faith.
Phil Jones & Chris Smalling pic.twitter.com/qN3hTPMq5l
— JM (@Mourinholic) February 15, 2018
Aside from Smalling briefly becoming Louis van Gaal’s key defender, and Jones’ revival during the winter of last season, by far the best football they have played for United was back when they had one of Vidic or Ferdinand as partners to nurse them through matches. And despite being together at the club since 2011, there still appears little evidence of a proper understanding between them as a pair.
“I know what Chris can do,” said England coach Gareth Southgate in November, and he was not flattering a player who has 31 international caps. “The players I have brought in I want to see using the ball from the back and building it up in a certain way.”
Southgate has preferred Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier to drop into a back three rather than select Smalling, whose performances in recent weeks have probably done little to change that opinion. Culpable in both United’s recent defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle, Smalling was the fall guy – literally so – at St James’ Park in being penalised for a clumsy dive in midfield and then being caught out in the subsequent set piece that led to Matt Ritchie’s winner.
With Jones and Marcos Rojo missing, Daley Blind and Eric Bailly having played only a single minute of football in the last three months, Smalling is highly likely to start in Andalusia, and perhaps alongside Victor Lindelof, a summer signing that Mourinho has made sparing use of, last starting him in the Premier League on New Year’s Day.
Lindelof’s signing, for the hardly inexpensive price of £30m from Benfica, continues to mystify, and is an unsatisfactory addition to a defensive unit in dire need of an overhaul. While Pep Guardiola has brought in John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo, United rely on converted wingers as full-backs in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, both well into their 30s, while continuing to lean on Jones and Smalling.
All four were present when Sir Alex Ferguson was around, and have not been supplanted by the likes of Luke Shaw, Blind, Rojo and, for reasons of fitness, Bailly. The first three were Louis van Gaal purchases, part of the £250m burning of transfer funds he presided over, while Bailly has been as unlucky as Jones with fitness, suffering a knee injury last season, and an ankle problem requiring surgery that kept him out from November until the last minute of Saturday’s 2-0 win at Huddersfield. Rojo’s cruciate rupture in April came at a time the Argentinian had made himself first choice, and he is yet to make a full recovery.
Such misfortunes left Smalling and Jones in the firing line. They have been victims of circumstance themselves, having joined England’s best team only to have to live through an era of disruption, decline and disappointment – but United need to move them on if a full revival is to come about.