Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started this season with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof as his first-choice defensive pairing, with Axel Tuanzebe on the bench, leaving no room for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
The two Englishmen, who had been tipped as the future Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, were clearly not in the manager’s plans.
Before the window closed, Smalling was loaned out to Roma, while Jones continued to be a missing figure in Manchester United’s matchday squad.
Of the two, fans had probably been keener to hold on to Smalling, although neither had done enough during their time at the club to warrant any sadness over their departure.
In Serie A, Smalling has been thriving, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise given its slower pace suits his strengths. Since making his debut, he’s played every single minute of Roma’s games and with good reason too.
He’s adapted quickly to a different style of play, with his new side playing a much higher line than at United, and he is thriving under his newfound confidence.
This is no different to his time at United, when he’d go through periods of looking like a top-class defender, only for a massive blunder to send him spiralling into a seemingly longer stretch of inadequate displays.
He’s 30 now and fans expected better from him, but he could never maintain his good form.
Smalling’s best performances for United came under Louis van Gaal, where the slow speed and obsession with possession allowed Chris, or Mike as the Dutchman mistakenly called him once, to shine. Whenever he went through those disappointing spells, fans would jokingly call for ‘Mike’ to return.
Yet his displays in Serie A show no sign of waning. It’s not that he’s just been defensively sound either, with him providing goals and assists at the other end. He’s scored twice in his last seven games for Roma, yet only managed two in his previous 40 appearances for United.
While not many supporters objected to Smalling’s exit – particularly in light of signing Harry Maguire for £80m – the disappointing form of Victor Lindelof is raising a few eyebrows every time social media informs them of yet another impressive display from their on-loan defender.
Jones was called upon recently in United’s 3-3 draw with Sheffield United and it was like a horror show.
He’s made over 200 appearances for United, but looked like a novice as Lys Mousset took advantage of Jones’ indecision in allowing the ball to bounce. If there was anything you’d expect Jones to be good at it would be booting it into the stands!
He was taken off at half-time and you’d be hard-pressed to find a United fan keen to see him wearing the shirt again any time soon.
In his ninth season at the club, he’s due a testimonial soon, which is as telling as any other dreadful statistic about United over how far the club has fallen.
At their height of success, you’d never see a player of such substandard ability lasting this long at Old Trafford. Reports have suggested that, all too aware of his unpopularity, he has declined the invitation of a testimonial.
Playing in front of a crowd that would likely be made up of his friends and family is an embarrassment anyone would be keen to avoid.
Still, had Maguire played like the most expensive defender of all-time and Lindelof had stepped up, United fans wouldn’t have given Smalling a second thought, but that hasn’t been the case.
Instead of raising the levels of those around him, Maguire has too often sunk to their level and should have done better in plenty of situations where United have conceded.
He’s not helped by the absence of anything resembling a midfield in front of him, but he’s failed to close opponents down or stick a boot in on more than one occasion and it’s cost the team.
Fans have been asking why Smalling was allowed to go and Jones was retained, with both signing contract extensions recently in an apparent bid to hold on to some of their value. But there has to be someone willing to pay the fee or salaries if a player is going to leave and it should come as no surprise that clubs weren’t interested in taking Jones off United’s hands.
Yet we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.
He’s more than happy to pick up his massive salary that he wouldn’t be offered elsewhere, even if that means infrequent playing time and ridicule when he does play.
Smalling should be applauded for his bravery in moving to a different country to get more playing time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had told him he would play in 20-25 games this season and he wasn’t prepared to settle for that, particularly at this stage in his career.
“I could have picked up my wages, I’ve just become a father to a little boy of five months, I was settled in Manchester with my family,” Smalling said in an interview with The Athletic. “Coming to Rome was a challenge that I liked.”
Supporters can hope that Maguire comes good and Lindelof improves, although will continue to begrudgingly watch as Smalling goes from strength to strength in Italy.
“I think I’ll be a better player when I go back to Manchester next May,” Smalling continued. The fans will be hoping the same!