The Rise of Chris Smalling: Can He Replace Either Vidic or Ferdinand?

Rob BlanchetteFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 01:  Chris Smalling of Manchester United challenges Demba Ba of Chelsea during the FA Cup with Budweiser Sixth Round Replay match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 1, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

During impassioned debates and conversations of fantasy football in the pubs across Greater Manchester, there is one footballer whose name is regularly missing from the lips of most fans.

Chris Smalling's rise from obscurity to the big leagues has been meteoric.

As United lifted their last European trophy on a wet night in Moscow, the young man from South London was battling semi-professional opponents for the giants of the Kent Medway, Maidstone United.

It is hard to believe that Smalling had made just 13 league appearances for Fulham before Sir Alex Ferguson paid a small fortune for the inexperienced defender.

Most United fans had no idea who he was and concern was felt that one of Rio Ferdinand's or Nemanja Vidic's long-term replacements would be a kid straight from the centre of Malcolm Glazer's bargain basement.

Now in his fourth season at United, and some 94 games into his career with the champions, Smalling is blossoming into a diverse defensive talent. The axis of Vidic and Ferdinand has been broken under the new tenure of David Moyes and the scramble has begun for places in the Red Devils' back line.

There is no doubt Smalling has improved steadily over the past few seasons, but the question remains if the England international is of a sufficient standard to carve out his own niche at the club.

The thing that impressed me in his first months with the club was his confidence. He was happy to compete with bombastic forwards, always strong and aggressive, and prepared to attack the ball.

That was refreshing to see from a young player and, since then, he has developed into a much more rounded individual with the ball at his feet.

Even though he is not a like-for-like replacement for Rafael, he offers United a physical alternative at right-back. Wes Brown was the blueprint for this tactic, a central defender who could play on the right and put in a shift against more rugged opponents such as Stoke City. Tactically he is a very useful footballer to have around.

HERNING, DENMARK - JUNE 12: Adrian (L) of Spain loses out to Phil Jones (C) and Chris Smalling (R) of England during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship Group B match between England and Spain at the Herning Stadium on June 12, 2011 in Herning, Denmar

However, Smalling is still not universally approved of amongst the United fans. Where Phil Jones strides with popular gusto amongst his peers, smashing into the likes of Ronaldo in the fashion of a raging bull, Smalling is viewed as an almost lightweight equivalent.

His performance against Arsenal this past weekend proved this is anything but the case as he successfully galvanised United's right flank, overlapping Antonio Valencia when possible and admirably defending his position on the back foot in the second half.

Despite all of this, the player's future remains somewhat uncertain in the longer term. With talks of United having a long-standing agreement with Benfica for the services of Ezeqiuel Garay, as reported in The Daily Express, Smalling might quickly fall down the pecking order while the profiles of both Jonny Evans and Phil Jones both inflate.

Evans is specifically a problem for Smalling. The Northern Ireland international is now many people's first-choice in the central berth. His consistency and reading of the game is as good as many in the European game. Though still under-valued by so many, Evans is sure to take his place in the United first team for many years to come. The club captaincy will surely be his one day.

However, in this new era for Manchester United, if Smalling continues his fine performance levels and has an impressive World Cup Finals in Brazil, then the player may force his way ahead of his immediate competition in the mind and team selections of David Moyes.

The next year in the life of Chris Smalling may well define his whole career.