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Inside Europe: How Chris Smalling revived his flailing career at Roma

Inside Europe: How Chris Smalling revived his flailing career at Roma

Welcome to theScore’s weekly column on European football. Every Monday, Anthony Lopopolo scours the continent’s top leagues for the biggest stories.

When Paulo Fonseca was named Roma manager in June, he made a request. He didn’t ask for a massive signing or a big budget, but one particular player: Chris Smalling.

The price was right – Smalling was available on loan for a paltry €3 million – but everything else seemed off. The 30-year-old had lost confidence, and then playing time, at Manchester United. Fans targeted Smalling when he signed a new contract, seeing it as an extension of mediocrity.

But Fonseca saw what everyone else couldn’t see: a physical and assertive defender with deceptive speed, not to mention a player still in their prime. In other words, the perfect defender for Fonseca’s high line.

“Coming in and having my first sessions this week, I can see it is a team that wants to press, that wants to be aggressive,” Smalling said upon arriving in September. “He wants a defender that is aggressive and can cope with the runs in behind and, yes, I think it is a perfect fit.”

Over the first 13 matches of the season, it has been exactly that. Smalling has become one of Roma’s most important players and a leader at the back. If his partners are lagging behind the defensive line, Smalling will usher them forward with an authoritative wag of the hand.

He also pops up in the opponent’s half. If Roma are taking a corner kick, he’ll hang high until the play dies out. Smalling scored and assisted two goals in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Brescia using that exact approach, lingering in the penalty area like a predator in waiting. Considering Roma’s dead-ball prowess – they’ve scored a league-leading eight goals from set pieces – Smalling is finding ample opportunity to contribute in the attacking phase.