The ex-Man Utd defender who could galvanise Everton or West Ham with shock Premier League return
An ex-Manchester United defender could be on the move - and Everton and West Ham are among the teams that could benefit.
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Reports in Italy suggest that former England defender Chris Smalling, who has been a stalwart of the AS Roma team for the past four years, could be on his way out of the Olimpico, with the Saudi Pro League a likely destination. That could pose an interesting question for several Premier League sides – could he still do a job in the Premier League?
Now 33, the former Manchester United man has been a solid and reliable presence at the heart of the Roma defence since arriving from Manchester United back in 2019 – but he has lost his place to Evan N’Dicka, a summer signing from Eintracht Frankfurt, and has made the starting line-up just three times so far this season. Roma have an ageing squad and there has been plenty of talk about an extensive rebuild, meaning ageing players like Smalling may well be forced out of the door to accommodate new arrivals.
So Smalling could soon be starting a new chapter away from the Eternal City. Saudi money would no doubt be appealing if it was offered, but could a club from England tempt him back to his home country? And, more importantly, is he still good enough to make a difference in the Premier League?
Smalling has been excellent for most of his tenure in Rome, but there are signs that he is slowing down, at least physically. But then, pace has never been his primary asset – his qualities lie in his outstanding aerial ability and the quality of his positioning and marking.
Roma have maximised his qualities well over recent years, playing him in the heart of a narrow three-man defence with a strategy which seeks to force opposing sides wide and forcing them to cross the ball rather than build up through the centre. Those tactics have emphasised Smalling’s qualities and minimalised his weaknesses – allowing him dominate in the air against the increased quantity of high balls while reducing the amount of space he is asked to cover and preventing him from offering too much space to quicker players.
Any Premier League team that signs him should do so with his pros and cons in minds – he would not suit a high-tempo, high-pressing unit which asks its defenders to cover a lot of ground, and nor would he suit a team who looks to play the ball out from the back. His distribution is another relative weakness, and his passing range and accuracy are not up to elite standards. Statistics from the past couple of seasons strongly suggest that Smalling is still very good at what he does, but he is not necessarily a versatile defender who would fit a broad range of systems.
Although he has spent plenty of his career in a back four, his reduced mobility does mean that he would best suited either to a team that play three at the back or to a team that typically play a low block, bringing the midfield closer to the defence and reducing the volume of space that the centre-backs need to cover.
That could make him an enticing option for teams like Sheffield United, who play a back three but have a rather porous defence (their 31 goals against is the highest in the Premier League) or Everton, who don’t look to push their defence up the field and value quality in the air under Sean Dyche. West Ham United, who have been looking for reinforcements at centre-back for some time now, may also see Smalling as a valuable depth option at the very least.
None of those sides could easily match the money that would be offered by the Saudi Pro League, if such an offer is genuinely on the table, but it may be the case that Smalling would prefer to return to England over cashing out at the end of his career. If so, there is plenty of evidence that he offers plenty despite his advancing years – his success rate in the air is still exceptional, he’s a genuine threat from set pieces and he still wins a healthy percentage of one-on-ones. He may perhaps be past his prime, but he likely still has a couple of good years left in him, and has vast experience, an asset which could be valuable to a team battling relegation.
He may be a bit too expensive for the Blades, unless they stay up and move for Smalling in the summer – he is currently on a basic wage of €86,000 (£75,000) per week, and if the Saudis have an offer on the table then it’s hard to imagine his demands would be too low. Roma would also want a transfer fee given that his contract runs until 2025 and funds are needed for their rebuilding project – it wouldn’t necessarily be exorbitant, but a club like Everton, who have financial issues, may think twice before spending money on a player who would not necessarily be a nailed-on starter. West Ham probably hit the sweet spot of having the requisite financial health to make a move happen and having a tactical set-up which would suit Smalling.
There have not been any substantive rumours that Smalling is an option for any Premier League teams, of course – but someone of his experience and quality will have offers, and there are a few sides that could make good use of a player who still knows how to put his abilities to good use. His time at the very top may be coming to an end, but he is still a quality player with the know-how to improve a side in need of a strong centre-back who will let little past him at the back. One last shot at the Premier League could make a lot of sense.