Liverpool: The Reds at a crossroads

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Premier League 2014/2015 scores, Football England
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Defeats are always hard to stomach, but some more so than others. Sometimes though, it’s not just about the defeats or the manner of them; it’s an accumulation of things that change the landscape.

For over 50 years, trophies have been the currency that Liverpool Football Club has dealt in and the sad fact is that 10 major trophies in the last 25 years, including just three in the last 10 years, is simply not good enough for England’s most successful club.

Undoubtedly, football has changed. In the 1990’s, it became a commercialised, multi-million pound business that is now a multi-billion pound industry. It’s top stars and hangers-on are so far removed from the ordinary fan, that it sometimes seems to get lost that football is actually still a sport. Liverpool got left behind in that shuffle and although the club is now beginning to make up ground commercially, it still lacks the necessary financial muscle.

Sure, we’ve had spending sprees here and there, but we’re not consistent big spenders. When we do “splash the cash”, it’s with varying success. So, without the ability to gregariously spend our way of trouble, we need the right scouting network to enable us to make smart signings and a manager with the tactical nous to get the required results in key games. Sadly, we’ve been lacking in both areas for some time.

So, as we glare at the impending reality of another season without Champions League football and reflect on the last chance of a trophy this season disappearing down the toilet with that stinker of a performance in the FA Cup semi-final, the future of the club moves into full focus.

Most of that focus will inevitably fall upon Brendan Rodgers. I find it uncomfortable that we are again looking at a change of manager after just three years. Although ideally, you’d want an extended period of stability at the club, especially after such a tumultuous few years that saw Liverpool Football Club on the brink of financial meltdown and Roy Hodgson as manager.

Those were truly dark days in the history of the club and that was only four years ago. Kenny Dalglish did an admirable job in settling the club down, but his full season as permanent manager sadly couldn’t live up to his previous tenure. So, despite winning a trophy in the League Cup, the clubs owners showed their ruthless streak by sacking arguably the biggest legend in the club’s history.

Brendan Rodgers appointment in 2012 was to be the signal of a new direction. A younger manager, to lead younger players with passion, hunger, vigour and ambition with the promise being of fantastic football. The first half of 2012/13 was an embarrassment, but the second half much improved and with new arrivals Daniel Sturridge and Philipe Coutinho immediately firing, it brought promise.

That promise was carried into 2013/14 and gave us that unforgettable season where we nearly won the league. Nearly. That’s a tag we carry – the nearly men. We nearly won the league, we nearly got to the League Cup final, we nearly got to the FA Cup final. Nearly, nearly, nearly. But this season’s Premier League and Champions League campaigns have not even been nearly. They’ve been nowhere near and simply not good enough.

This isn’t a reactionary lashing out or the knee jerk reaction of wanting a manager sacked because he’s lost three games. This is a reluctant acceptance that our current manager’s limitations are there for all to see and unfortunately, he can’t take us where we want to go. Let me make this clear, I appreciate what Brendan Rodgers has done at Liverpool.

On the whole, our style of football has improved, some players have been developed, young players have been brought through to the first team and we had that memorable rollercoaster of excitement last year. Whilst they’re all plus points, the reality is when the pressure of expectation is on our current set up, we bottle it. We fall short. We don’t have what is required. However you want to say it, it amounts to the same thing.

Brendan Rodgers tactical naivety was cruelly exposed in the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea at the end of last season, the game that will be eternally remembered for Steven Gerrard’s slip. After a dreadful start to this season, including a disappointing Champions League campaign, we changed defensive formation. A significant change that stemmed the flow of goals we were letting in and added wins along the way. It was a change that worked well for some time until teams began to work it out. A fortunate win against Swansea was the warning sign not heeded and it was followed up with embarrassing defeats to Man Utd and Arsenal.

We reverted to a back four in wins against Blackburn and Newcastle, but then came Wembley. Tim Sherwood is no tactical genius, he simply had to look at how Swansea and Man Utd shut us down and we duly played a back three, before switching formation 25 minutes in and again at half time and a few more times in the second half. It was a sign of desperation, a manager unsure of how to find answers in pressure situations.

In his three years in charge, Liverpool have never won a game against any of the other top 6 teams after conceding the first goal – a disconcerting statistic; no trophies in three years is another one.

“I could’ve made it work if I’d been given more time” is the mantra from most sacked football managers; even the hapless Roy Hodgson used it after his catastrophic six months at Anfield. Regrettably, I don’t think more time can be given. Last season’s transfer fund and the money received for Luis Suarez was not invested well. Arguments will rage over whether certain players were Brendan Rodgers or the committee’s signings, but he’s said he has the final say on them all, so he must accept responsibility.

The treatment of some of those players has not come across very well; dragging the 20 year old Lazar Markovic off after 45 minutes, four matches in a row, can’t be good for his confidence and smacks of making him a scapegoat.

The same could be said of Mario Balotelli and what appeared to be a refusal to use him for a period. Balotelli is a player I never wanted us to sign as I felt he didn’t suit our style. That is, our high tempo pressing style of last season. We no longer play that way, in fact, what is our style now? After three years, you would expect a manager to have a definitive style, his team have an identity. How can you have a transfer strategy when you can’t be sure what formation you’re going to play or how you’re going to play?

At this stage of Brendan Rodgers career, I feel he’s taken the club as far as he can and in football, if you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards. If the clubs owners do not at least try to capitalise on the availability of Jürgen Klopp this summer, I’d be hugely disappointed. Of course, there’s no guarantee Klopp would come to Liverpool and Man City are understandably favourites to be his destination, but we’d certainly have a chance.

Whether FSG decide to stick or twist, Liverpool Football Club is at a crossroads and this summer will be a test of the owners’ ambition.


Written by Andy Wales

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Football Tips: How to deal with a Knee Injury

Did you know that you can suffer as much damage to your knee by falling down the stairs in your home as a football player can when he’s twisted his knee the wrong way in a football game?  Unfortunately, knee injuries are common among athletes, but they can also happen to anyone young or old.

If you have recently fallen or twisted your knee accidentally and it isn’t springing back to health quickly, it may be important to take a more serious look at it.  Contact your doctor or physiotherapist to have your injured knee assessed to see if you may have torn a ligament.

There are ligaments on each side of the knee, and one can tear during an accident if the knee is twisted the wrong way.  While the body’s natural healing properties do kick in and go to work immediately, knee ligament injuries are more substantial than minor sprains.  They can take weeks or months to heal, and if left untreated, thick scar tissue can form causing knee problems down the road.

If you have torn a ligament, the degree of tear can vary.  If your leg is giving out when you try to walk, you have likely suffered a third-degree knee ligament tear.  This type of tear usually requires surgery to rejoin the ligament. Smaller first or second-degree knee ligament tears can also be intensely painful, making it difficult to walk or manoeuvre.  First or second-degree knee ligament tears can heal in time without surgery, with the proper treatment.

As with most injuries of this nature, it is important in the first few hours and days after the injury to apply ice to the area for ten minutes several times a day.  The injured knee should also be elevated to reduce chances of swelling.  You can use a gel pack made specifically for treating injuries to ice your injured knee, or you can simply fill a plastic bag with ice cubes, frozen peas or a handful of snow from outside (if it is winter), and set the bag on a towel laid over the injured knee.

After a few days of resting the injured knee, it will be important to move it frequently to prevent it from stiffening.  Your physiotherapist will suggest a few exercises that will be most beneficial for working the area.  You can do these exercises on your own in the comfort of your own home.  Your visiting physiotherapist will also use a variety of techniques or tools to help break down the scar tissue in order to restore the knee and prevent long-term damage.

An injured knee ligament can take from several weeks to several months to heal, preventing you from participating in your usual activities.  Arranging for an ongoing regime of customized treatments in your own home by a visiting rehabilitation expert can help accelerate your recovery.

Though it may seem dismal to not have the full function of your knee right now, with proper care and lots of patience your knee can become fully functional again, restoring you to the independent lifestyle you’re accustomed to.


Written by Joy R. Calderwood

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Champions League: An Infographic on the 2014/15 Semi-final Contenders

The folks at Guarantee Tickets have provided another infographic, this time on the Champions League semi-finals and its contenders.


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Lyon: Les Gones reemerge from the shadows as they return to the Champions League

In Europe’s top leagues, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more than the 28 Alexandre Lacazette has plundered in Ligue 1, so it is no surprise that the 23 year old heads into the summer as hot property. Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have all been linked, with the Anfield club seemingly most likely to be ahead in the race for the striker’s signature, but if Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas has his way, they will face an almighty fight to get him.

Calling his striker “untransferable”, Aulas was firm in his desire to keep hold of Lacazette in the January transfer window, saying he was priceless. “What’s the name of the Welshman at Real Madrid?” he asked, “Bale! I think Alexandre is a lot better. But Alexandre doesn’t have a price, so it’s pointless thinking of one.”

It is indeed hard to argue with Aulas. Lyon aim to move into their new 58,000-seater Stade des Lumieres in December and it is mainly down to Lacazette’s goals that Les Gones are due to house it as a Champions League club. With three games of the French season to go and at this moment Lyon sit on top, with PSG just behind (who have a game in hand), but almost certain of claiming one of the three qualification spots for a return to Europe’s premier competition.

It is apt they are currently on course to finish sandwiched between France’s ultra-rich, PSG and Monaco, clubs owned by Qatari and Russian billionaires respectively. Les Gones, Lyon’s nickname, translates to The Kids and it is true of what the club has become in the absence of such resources. Of the regulars under manager Hubert Fournier this term, only Christophe Jallet, Henri Bedimo and Maxime Gonalons are above the age of 25.

24 year old Clement Grenier and 21 year olds Samuel Umtiti and Nabil Fekir, the excellent winger who was released from Lyon’s academy in 2007 only to return in 2011, have all emerged from Lyon’s talent stream and, as well as Gonalons, have all been tied down to new deals.

It is three years since Lyon, who won the league title in seven successive seasons over the last decade, competed in the Champions League proper, finishing outside of France’s top 3 in 2012 for the first time since 1998 before finishing fifth last time out. Remi Garde was in charge for both of those seasons and then stepped down last summer for personal reasons to be replaced by Fournier, used to working on limited resources at Stade Reims whom he guided back to Ligue 1 after a 33 year absence.

Over the past 3 years Lyon have cut their wage bill down by 40% and sought more academy products to follow the path of Karim Benzema, who made the club £32 million with his sale to Real Madrid in 2009.

Since the £19 million signing of Yoan Gourcuff in 2010, Lyon have spent less than that entire fee, £17 million in total, over the course of the following 3 years while recouping £66 million on the sales of Jeremy Toulalan, Miralem Pjanic, Hugo Lloris, Aly Cissokho and Dejan Lovren.

Unable to lavish the same eye-watering amount PSG did on David Luiz last summer, they have preferred to go with Gonalons and fellow academy graduate Jordan Ferri to replace Pjanic and Toulalan while 20 year old Corentin Tolisso, in only his second season, slots in alongside them in midfield.

24 year old Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, also former member of Lyon’s youth teams, had only made 7 senior appearances for the club before this season and has kept 12 clean sheets from 34 games, a record bettered only by four keepers in the league. With 29 goals conceded in total only Monaco and Saint-Ettiene have shipped less, their defensive solidity kept in check by the experience of the 31 year old Serbian Milan Bisevac and the quick, powerful, technically-gifted Umtiti, who complement each other effectively.

Not that Fournier puts any particular emphasis on defending however, with his Lyon side proving to be a potent force going forward. Their 68 goals is just 2 short of PSG who sit top of the scoring charts and with a rate of 13.4 shots per game only Marcelo Bielsa’s barnstorming Marseille team trouble the opposition goal with more regularity. It is the understanding of the dangerous Lacazette and Fekir that is behind such attacking power, with the latter playing an impressive support role his partner with 12 goals and 9 assists.

Goals have also been found from other sources with the classy Tolisso breaking forward from midfield to score on 7 occasions while Cameroonian Clinton N’Jie, yet another youth team product, has chipped in with 6 goals and 7 assists from 14 starts. Fournier has also been boosted by the return to fitness of Gourcuff, so troubled by injuries in his past 4 seasons with the club, who has made 17 appearances and created 21 chances, scoring 3 goals and making 4 at the attacking-midfield tip of Fournier’s favoured 4-3-1-2 system.

Lacazette will seize the headlines and Aulas will continue the fight to keep him, though he will perhaps be pleased that the spotlight being shone on his striker will prevent its glare landing on the other areas of the squad where quality is present. In a season where the vast sums of money available to PSG and Monaco were again tipped to dominate alongside Bielsa’s Marseille, Lyon have spoiled the party on limited resources and are now in a position to sustain it.

Success may evade them this season but they have proven to France that there are other paths to the top, not just the ones paved with gold.


Written by Adam Gray

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Football Quizzes: Name the English Premier League goalscorers with at least 100 goals


Created by Sporcle

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AC Milan: What’s the main reason behind their perplexing demise?

AC Milan are closer to the bottom of the table than the top and will miss out on European football for a second consecutive season. Midweek, Filippo Inzaghi and his men suffered yet another defeat, their tenth of the season -this time at home to Genoa (3-1). Milan also sit tenth in the standings. It’s simply not good enough.

The Rossoneri’s demise has been extensively covered by the media, with many neutrals still perplexed as to what the hell is going on with the eighteen times Scudetto winners and seven times Champions League winners. It’s clear that the supports have had enough, they gathered together in tightly choreographed ranks until they resembled the word ‘Basta’, which means ‘enough’.

There are a host of on the field issues at the club, but I think the big problem is the ownership.

It’s been widely reported that owner Silvio Berlusconi is considering selling the club. I ask, how can a side push forward under an owner who no longer wants to operate at the club, it can’t be easy -  players, management and general staff have uncertain futures.

However, Berlusconi leaving the club is a good thing; AC Milan are in need of fresh ideas from higher up the hierarchy, and more importantly, funds.

Silvio Berlusconi has now lived long enough to see himself become the villain at the club he took over in 1986. Yes, under his ownership, Milan have had the most successful period of their history. Berlusconi saved the Italian giants from near bankruptcy.

Recently, he has not invested enough, due to the struggling investments of other personal ventures. His holding company Fininvest is bleeding money. They had to sell 92 million shares of Italian broadcaster Mediaset - a host of corruption scandals certainly doesn’t help either.

The club has debts of around  €250m and lost €91.3m in 2014. This is mainly due to the club missing out on European football.

So, who is in line to take over? There are two men emerging as the finalists in the race. One of them is Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol and the other Hong Kong entrepreneur Richard Lee.

It has been heavily reported within the last few days that Mr Bee of Thailand is the favourite. The businessman flew in last week to watch the side and meet with Silvio Berlusconi. Taechaubol’s group is said to be offering €500m for somewhere between 51% and 60% of the club.

The Milan faithful certainly want a deal to go through. The club’s Ultras, the Curva Sud, wrote an open letter to the management, which is rather touching;

“It seemed impossible, but we’ve reached a historic turning point for our Milan, our President, who bought the club in a courtroom, and just three years later gave us the joy of winning the third European Cup in our history, who helped us win that trophy four more times, not to mention eight Scudetti.

Our President, who many times has made us angry with his choices and distant periods, but in the end has always shown that his heart is made up of these two colours [red and black].

Our President, at the worst moment of his stewardship, now has to make another decision of love, in the face of this current situation, and the mismanagement of those at the top which is demonstrated by the disastrous team which reached its nadir yesterday.

Now you face a turning point, and you must to decide whether to give up Milan, which has been yours for 29 years, and for which you wrote indelible pages of history.

Unfortunately, all stories have a beginning and an end.

Revolution must be just that - to start over again, while never forgetting our history and tradition.

Now is the time for you to make a choice, one which will surely be the best for Milan and all that the club represents.

If you decide to remain, we ask you to make a change at the corporate level, in order to return to being great.

If you decide to sell, you will always be the most successful President in the history of football, and no-one can ever erase that.

We are here awaiting the future, and always will be.”

As a fan of Serie A, I sincerely hope that the situation is resolved, because the league needs a good AC Milan (along with Inter) to be competitive.


Written by Serie A Writer

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Also: Below are the answers to yesterday’s crossword puzzle

Football Crosswords: Bundesliga Fussball Fest

To celebrate the German title being decided, we’ve dedicated this week’s football crossword to all things Bundesliga. So if you think you know your Frankfurts and your Freiburgs, come with us on another puzzle adventure!


Clues Across

7    Schalke 04’s Italian manager (2,6)

8    _ McInally, Scotsman who joined Bayern Munich in 1989 (4)

9    Johnny Heitinga’s Berlin-based club (6)

10  Dutchman named 2010 Footballer of the Year in Germany after his first season in the Bundesliga (6)

11  Bayern’s famous Champions League, Bundesliga and Cup success of 2013 (6)

13  Signal _ Park, Borussia Dortmund’s ground (5)

15  Uli, he made over 500 appearances in goal in the Bundesliga (5)

17  Willy Sagnol’s club prior to joining the Bundesliga in 2000 (6)

20  Robert Lewandowski’s national team (6)

21  Which Serie A side knocked Wolfsburg out of this season’s Europa League? (6)

23  _ Biram Diouf, Senegalese striker previously at Hannover (4)

24  Cup won by Hamburg in 1983 after a 1-0 defeat of Juventus (8)


Clues Down

1    Type of free-kick - straight and to the point? (6)

2    _ German, Andreas Thom was the first one to sign for a Bundesliga team when he joined Leverkusen in 1989 (4)

3    Hamburg club relegated from the Bundesliga in 2011 (2,5)

4    _ Djorkaeff, France international who joined Kaiserslautern in 1999 (5)

5    He returned to manage Hamburg in April (8)

6    1860’s rather more successful neighbours! (6)

12  The _ Stadium, it was Lukas Podolski’s new home after leaving Cologne in 2012 (8)

14  Inswingers or outswingers (7)

16  Name connecting Doll, Helmer and Strunz (6)

18  Schalke signed Matija Nastasic from Man City this way in January (2,4)

19  René, Hamburg goalkeeper (5)

22  Mr Reina, Bayern Munich stopper (4)


Answers to this crossword will be published in a random article tomorrow.


Created by Aleric Linden

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Ivan Rakitic: The Rocket adapting to the Barcelona setup

When Ivan Rakitic’s signing was announced by Barcelona in June 2014, it caught many on the hop. A squad boasting Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta, Mascherano and Xavi could hardly get any better. It was also assumed that the club would finally address their defence and strengthen their main weakness. However, in August 2014 it was announced that Cesc would be leaving and joining Chelsea; Rakitic’s path to the first team had suddenly become more straightforward.

However, it is not always that simple as Cesc found out. Having rejoined from Arsenal his initial displays were tremendous and the move appeared relatively seamless. Following a few injury problems, he subsequently struggled to command a place in the first team and frustration became the abiding memory of his final few months.

Despite being viewed as the natural successor to Xavi, he lacks the positional discipline needed to fulfil the role; Rakitic was identified as a player who could improve the team and thus he was purchased.

It is one thing getting into the team at Barcelona, but it is a completely different thing to remain there. The demands placed upon the players are gigantic and following a successful spell the success or failure in attempting to repeat the feat ultimately decides their fate. Fortunately for the Croatian, his rise to prominence at Sevilla was not a brief flicker of talent but more a realisation and sign of growing confidence.

He has progressed steadily throughout his career and has gained valuable experience of domestic football in several leagues as well as over 50 appearances in European competition. At 27, he is at the right age to take on the responsibility from Xavi and has the passing range to dictate games once he is more accustomed to the Barcelona style.

From his first few games at his new club, the move seemed a good one. He contributed during Barcelona’s indifferent start to the season and began to look more accustomed to his new surroundings.

Blessed with the ability to pick a pass with varying methods of executing it he is able to retain possession and provide the accuracy when needed. With the arrival of Suarez too in the summer to form an attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and the Uruguayan his passing options are amongst, if not the best in Europe.

His recent displays have indicated that his adaptation into his new surroundings have gone exceedingly well. The way he controlled the tempo of the game against PSG in both legs of the quarter final showed a player full of confidence and at the top of his game.

With the club still competing on all three fronts, the final few weeks of the season promise much. It is at this point that the winners emerge and as well as usually being the most in form of the top sides they are more often than not the best teams too.

Rakitic has still not even been at Barcelona for a year, but his transition thus far has been impressive.


Written by Andy Hunter

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Ricardo Pereira: Highly-regarded prospect groomed to be Danilo’s replacement at Porto

Ricardo Pereira is one of a number of young prospects who were thrown in at the deep end at Vitória Guimarães – and grew up fast.

The northern club was in financial meltdown in 2011 when newly appointed coach, the aptly named Rui Vitória, decided to start from scratch, relying on largely unknown youth players. In truth he had no choice as any bankable assets in the squad were sold off, but the policy led to a spectacular change in fortunes


Forsaken by Sporting

As well as building a consistently competitive side, in 2013 Vitória Guimarães won their first piece of major silverware, lifting the Portuguese Cup. Ricardo Pereira played a key role in their success. It must have been particularly satisfying for the Lisbon-born 19-year-old, having had to head north to further his career after failing to make the grade at Sporting’s famed Alcochete academy.

Known simply as Ricardo in Portugal, he crowned an outstanding 2012/13 season with a late winner in the shock 2-1 win over Benfica in the cup final. He had also been decisive in the semi-final, notching a brace in the 2-0 victory over Belenenses, but it was on that sunny May afternoon that he first experienced true adulation after a mazy run saw him skip past a number of challenges before firing a deflected 20-yard shot low into the net to seal the cup triumph.

“It was without doubt the highest point of my career,” he told Portuguese website “Neno (the assistant coach) said we would only realise the enormity of what we had achieved a few days later, and it was true. It’s always great looking back on it, belonging to that team, winning that trophy for fans as passionate as the Guimarães supporters.”


Eye for goal

But it was not just Ricardo’s heroics that day that earned him a move to FC Porto. In his first full season in Portugal’s top flight his direct, skilful and productive wing play was allied to a lethal eye for goal as he scored 8 goals in all competitions.

He has also prospered at international level, hitting 6 goals in 13 appearances for Portugal’s U21 side, making himself a mainstay in the team despite fierce competition as one of what many pundits consider an emerging golden generation.



At Porto he has had to show patience with limited playing time in an expensively assembled squad. He has been adapted into an attacking right-back this season, with conspicuous success, even playing a Champions League quarter-final there.

His former coach Rui Vitória has no doubts he has what it takes to go far in the game: “He’s got enormous potential, an excellent capacity to learn, strong belief in what he does and he reacts very well to challenges.”

With Porto right-back Danilo sold to Real Madrid, Ricardo is gearing himself up for his next challenge: to establish himself as a first-team regular for the Blue and Whites. Don’t put it past him.


Written by Tom Kundert

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Chris Smalling: Struggling defensive prospect emerges to become United’s beacon of hope at the back

Sir Alex Ferguson would spend around £27 million on bringing Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to Manchester United within a year of each other at the start of the decade, later stating that he saw them as eventual successors to his last truly solid defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. It is now 4 years since Jones joined Smalling at Old Trafford and things haven’t run so smoothly for the pair.

Ferguson spoke highly of both youngsters, perhaps bizarrely claiming Jones could go on to become United’s greatest ever player while he would say Smalling was in store for a long future at the club. Ferguson has since passed and United are nearing the end of a second season, under a second manager, in life after Ferguson and it looks as if those prophecies may only come to fruition for one of them.

After the erroneous year of David Moyes, Vidic and Ferdinand would both depart and with new manager Louis Van Gaal failing to sign a proper centre-half to replace them despite outlaying £170 million, the door seemed open for them, together with Jonny Evans, to show they could indeed provide a reliable long-term base to United’s new era, as well as for England. However Jones has missed 15 of United’s 34 games so far while Smalling has missed 13, starting only 17 games in the Premier League and making a further 4 appearances as a sub.

Van Gaal’s own misgivings over playing with a back 4, at times erring on the side of caution with a back 5, and a litany of injuries and suspensions has stymied any opportunity for Smalling and Jones to strike together a consistent partnership. Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Marcos Rojo- naturally a left-back, have all made at least 10 appearances for United at centre-half this season while Daley Blind, also more at home at left-back, has also filled in there. Jones and Rojo were both again injured for the visit to Everton on Sunday, in which Smalling was partnered by McNair in a 3-0 loss that betrayed United’s recent upturn in performances and results.

The defeat at Goodison marked the first time United have lost successive league games under Van Gaal, coming a week after the 1-0 loss at Chelsea stopped a run of 6 straight wins which included impressive victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City. Smalling and Jones were at the back for all three of those games but the 3-0 win over Spurs was their first time together at the back in a pair this season. Incredibly, it was only the fourth time they had played alongside each other in the Premier League.

Jones has acknowledged this has curtailed the chance for the pair to develop an understanding. “It has been difficult for us”, he says, “You cannot build a partnership on four games. Hopefully now we have had back-to-back games together we can keep it going and keep playing well together”. Jones’s latest injury has once again prevented that happening and as the 23 year old enters the final year of his contract, talks still haven’t materialised over a new deal despite reports of an extension.

Smalling however has been given a new five-year deal, a reward for his “improvement and immense rate of development” according to Van Gaal who says the 25 year old has become “an integral member of the first team squad”. Smalling has made all of his 21 appearances this term as a centre-back, in contrast to his time under David Moyes where he often played as a right-back and the improvement has been palpable. He has made more interceptions (47) and won more tackles, 84% of them compared to 69.8%, than he managed throughout the whole of last season and pass completion is up, at 88.6%, to last season’s 82.6% as he has become more assured with his distribution.

Improvement has not only come over the season but in a period of 6 months as in November he was being described by Van Gaal as “stupid” for picking up 2 yellow cards as United fell to defeat in the first Manchester derby of the season. They remain the only cautions he has picked up in this campaign as he has developed a discipline that now makes him a calming presence at the back and having committed 19 fouls he has given away less free-kicks than Jones, Blind and Rojo. With Smalling, void of the haphazard panic he displayed in the first half of the season, in the team Van Gaal may now find, to borrow his phrase, his ass twitching considerably less.

Manchester Evening News now call him the best defender at the club and with Phil Jones still prone to clumsy challenges and rash instances of positional indiscipline, together with Evans’s notable lack of progression, it puts Smalling in the strongest position of the three as United’s defence looks set for a summer upheaval.

Evans, who has made just 14 starts in all competitions under Van Gaal, seems to be the most vulnerable as United reportedly target Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels to add some reliable, top-level experience to a defence that seems extremely young and has had its naivety exposed, most latterly at Everton, on numerous occasions this season.

Van Gaal may go for Hummels as a result of Jones’s injury struggles but Smalling is highly unlikely to be displaced, testament to his tenfold improvement over the past year or so. Ferguson may yet be proved wrong on Jones, but for Smalling his £10 million investment looks set to be proved very astute.


Written by Adam Gray

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