Every six months or so, Manchester United go through a comparatively sticky patch, coinciding with a defensive ricket or three. Within two days, a news story is leaked that Manchester United’s manager wishes to part with one, two or three of the guilty party.
The problem for Smalling is that he is always on that list, destined to spend his Manchester United existence with one foot out of the door. He clearly struggles with confidence issues, but also has a knack of squeezing three or four individual mistakes into a 30-second period to compound each one.
At some point, Smalling will join Everton or West Ham and become a competent central defender, away from the spotlight’s glare. At 28, it’s surely not going to happen at Old Trafford. He’s somehow less than two years younger than Jonny Evans.
Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham – 24 league appearances, 12 starts)
One of the secrets behind Tottenham’s consistent overachievement (according to expectation, I should say for the squawking ‘but what have they won?’ brigade) is their ability to keep players fit. This season, the list of players to appear in 25 or more of their 27 league games comprises of Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Heung-Son Min.
Next on that list comes Sissoko with 24. Only half of those have been starts, but it’s still a baffling dependency on a player who most supporters would have been happy to sell at the end of last season. Or never buy at all.
Sissoko, so the accusation goes, is a symbol of old Tottenham, a club that panics at the end of a transfer window and splurges on a player for a high price but with a low ceiling of potential and at an age where resale value is likely to be limited. Sometimes those transfers work out, but they are not the percentage move.
Morgan Schneiderlin (Everton – 22 league appearances, 17 starts)
When Manchester United signed Schneiderlin in July 2015, he seemed the perfect fit for their needs. Michael Carrick was slowing down, and Louis van Gaal wanted a replacement who was capable of playing sharp passes into feet but whose principal responsibility was protecting the defence.
In his first season at Old Trafford, Schneiderlin was effective without being spectacular, but as Jose Mourinho froze out a number of Van Gaal’s recruits, he slipped down the pecking order. When a £22m offer came from Everton 13 months ago, it was the perfect move for all parties.
How life has soured for Schneiderlin. Having dropped out of the Everton’s first team, he reached his lowest ebb on Saturday when he was booed by Everton supporters having replaced Idrissa Gueye against Crystal Palace. Even if the catcalls were more towards Everton’s scattergun transfer activity as a whole rather than Schneiderlin as an individual, there’s surely no way back.
Petr Cech (Arsenal – 27 league appearances, 27 starts)
Minded to put Granit Xhaka in here, but there is still a percentage of Arsenal supporters who believe that he could succeed at the Emirates with the right central midfield partner. I don’t agree, but this isn’t about what I think. Everyone’s sick enough of hearing that.