By Matthew Galea
Despite conceding just two goals in three competitive games to date under Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese manager does not seem to be done transforming United’s defence yet.
Thus far, Mourinho’s changes to the United squad have reaped instant dividends up front and in the middle of the park and it seems his focus has turned to the United defence, even after the arrival and subsequent impressive form of new boy Eric Bailly.
But where does this leave Chris Smalling?
Smalling – arguably the best defender in the Premier League last season – has not even started a game yet, and given the promising partnership forming between Bailly and Daley Blind, the England international may have to wait a little while longer yet for his first start of the campaign.
There is little doubting that Smalling remains an important part of the United squad – I even named him as one of five players who would be key to United’s success this campaign – but all of a sudden his status as starting defender has come into question, particularly if the growing reports linking Southampton defender Jose Fonte to United are true.
Should Mourinho sign the Portugual international, it could prove another obstacle for Smalling in his pursuit of first-team football and perhaps an unfair one given his extraordinary service to the team in the last 12 months.
It would seem odd that United’s defence should be subject to such overhaul, given it was clearly the best performing element of Louis van Gaal’s tenure at the club.
Smalling was undoubtedly crucial to the success of the United defence which has ranked among the leanest in the league in the last two seasons, with scoring goals seemingly the harder task.
But it would seem no stone is being left unturned by Mourinho in his pursuit of perfection and while it is too soon to know exactly how that will change Smalling’s role at the club, it is clear that at the very least he is unlikely to be the automatic selection he looked set to be following his performances last season.
Even with the likely arrival of Fonte, Mourinho looks as though he is keen to trim the fat at the back for United. He has already sold Tyler Blackett to Reading and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been loaned out as he pursues more senior action.
Phil Jones is also likely to exit having failed to build on the promise that prompted United to sign him from Blackburn Rovers in 2011. Whether he exits in this transfer window – with Stoke City and even Arsenal reportedly interested – remains to be seen, but even if he remains he is unlikely to feature often as he looks to add to his 104 league appearances for the club.
Should Jones leave and Fonte arrive, that would leave Mourinho with four recognised senior centre-backs, two right-backs (Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian) and two left-backs (Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo – who also faces an uncertain future at the club).
Coupled with the versatility and raw potential of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Mourinho would have assembled an impressive defence which will be the envy of the rest of the league.
With the exception of left-back – where depth remains an issue disguised by the return of Shaw – Mourinho will have quality, senior options across the defence.
It would prove another harsh lesson in the reality that is being a Manchester United player for Smalling, who has already served as an understudy to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Just as he looked to have made himself United’s first option at centre-back, he may have already moved back down the pecking order.
It might seem unfair on the individual, but it is undoubtedly a good thing for the team.