Smalling is back in pre-season training
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Chris Smalling had bumped into his much celebrated – and now injured – team-mate Leonardo Spinazzola at training earlier in the day and the once marauding left-back of the Euro 2020 winners was, Roma’s only Englishman reported, keen to remind him of the outcome at Wembley on Sunday.
Smalling, now back in pre-season at Roma, is the one of only two England internationals playing in Serie A, and he knew the quality of the stars of Italy’s national team before they won Euro 2020. “Spinna”, as Smalling calls the man who lines up to his left for Roma, was one of the team’s chief attacking threats last season. Indeed, Roma were leading 2-1 at Old Trafford when Spinazzola went off injured in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Manchester United, a tie that the home team eventually won 6-2.
Spinazzola and his Italian team-mates at Roma left all the songs and jokes about the Euro 2020 final a respectful few days but now, Smalling says with a smile, “they are keen to rub it in a bit.”
Smalling is talking over Zoom from Rome where he is doing pre-season back under the charge of Jose Mourinho, whose surprise appointment has sent a jolt of excitement through the club. Smalling is a part of Mourinho’s plans and, after a 2020-2021 season interrupted by injury, he is enjoying his first full pre-season at Roma in three summers.
It is fascinating to hear Smalling discuss the art of defending in Italy, and the two great exponents of it – Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci – against whom he has played at United and Roma. At 36 and 34 respectively, both Italy’s Euro 2020 stars at centre-half are considerably older than Smalling, 31, and both are venerated in Serie A for their experience. Smalling’s England career ended four years ago although that did not stop him from enjoying Euro 2020 as an England fan.
None more so than when his friend and former team-mate Luke Shaw scored in the final. “I jumped off the sofa to celebrate when Luke scored. He had such a great tournament – it was nice to see him let go.” As for Chiellini, Smalling knows him of old. They swapped shirts when United played Juventus in the Champions League in 2018 and spoke after the game, and Smalling has been pleasantly surprised that the old warrior has sought him out for a post-match chat in Serie A too.
What Chiellini and Bonucci lack in skill, they make up for with their leadership and reading of the game
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As a fellow centre-half, he recognised Chiellini and Bonucci’s crisis-management skills against England in the early stages of Sunday’s final. “They might not be the most skilful but it is their experience, how quick they are in their minds, that separates them from the rest,” Smalling says. “Chiellini is even older than Bonucci but they have seen it all and they are able to handle so many different situations. Take the final: for the first half an hour I thought it could be 2-0 or 3-0 [to England]. Italy’s experienced players were able to manage that.
“They have been in so many situations and they have won so much. But I doubt they have ever had a final where they have totally bossed it for 90 minutes. So they take the sting out of certain periods of games. They get players to group together and demand certain things of people. They simplify the young players’ roles. You saw them organising a lot and speaking to individuals, especially in the first 25 minutes. Eventually Italy got a little bit of a foothold and got more of the ball. Initially I thought, ‘This could be over early’. Maybe the reason it didn’t happen was a lot down to them managing that part.”
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We chuckle about the booking Chiellini took for grabbing Bukayo Saka’s collar in one moment of danger. “That was quite something, wasn’t it?” Smalling says. “It’s horrible to see as an England fan but if the roles were reversed you’d do the same thing in the dying minutes.” Chiellini, 37 next month, out of contract at Juventus but still keen to extend a magnificent career, is a different person off the pitch.
“He is such an open guy to have a chat with after games,” Smalling says. “You can tell he enjoys football – it just shows. I have heard a lot of good things about him across Italy. It is nice to see someone at the top of their game be so open and receptive.”
On Thursday, Smalling played his first game under Mourinho since Dec 2018, a 10-0 win over a fifth-tier side at Roma’s training ground. He was back early for pre-season. A knee injury in training last October just after he had signed a permanent deal, following a year on loan from United, set off a sequence of associated problems. Smalling admits he should have given himself longer to return but he was eager to help his new club. Two hamstring injuries occurred as a consequence of the problem in his left knee – now fully healed.
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He is happy to clarify his future: leaving Roma is not even a consideration. He is settled at the club and in the city. He has a strong relationship with Mourinho. He points out that he captained United on the occasion of Mourinho’s first trophy there – the 2017 League Cup final – and played the full Europa League final that season when Ajax were defeated. He played 100 games under Mourinho at United, in the top seven outfield players for appearances of that managerial era.
There was one moment of public criticism in 2017 when Mourinho accused him of not accelerating his return from injury – it later turned out that Smalling had played with a broken toe, having taken painkilling injections. That has been endlessly chewed over since Mourinho’s arrival in Rome. “Jose is a born winner and this place [Roma] needs a trophy,” Smalling says. “He is the best man to turn to. As soon as he was announced there were some bits in the media [about the aforementioned toe episode]. It was [some in] the English press suggesting ‘Jose is coming and they don’t get on, so Chris is going to leave’ and the Italian media jumped on it.
“Ultimately our relationship has always been very good. As soon as he [Mourinho] stops speaking about you or worrying about you, then that’s when you, as a player, have something to worry about. He wants you to play and that is his frustration [if a player cannot].”
“I felt I had that confidence from him and his belief. He made me captain in a cup final . To have that belief from a manager who has achieved so much in the game is important. He wants to push every player and drive them on. He wants to push you to your limits and that’s what I want too.”
The Jose-factor has been a galvanising force at Roma, Smalling says. The nearly team of Serie A, they fell away from the top three in February last season and never recovered. The club has not won a trophy since the Coppa Italia in 2008. The second of their two post-war league titles was 2001. Mourinho has been brought in to change that. “When we were last together, we won some trophies,” Smalling says, “so I hope we win some this season too”.
Smalling’s Italian is now good enough that he will do press conferences in the language this season, and Mourinho – fluent in Italian – was pleased to hear he does not have to repeat any of his instructions in English. Re-united away from United, it is proof that the game offers many second chances. Smalling is not 32 until November and feels he has many matches left to play. Gareth Southgate himself was 33 years and six months when he won his last England cap as a centre-back. Could he ever be persuaded to change his mind on Smalling?
“It definitely does sting a bit,” Smalling says. “Especially at certain times when I feel I have done well and been consistent. Under Gareth, it feels like no matter how well I do that ship has sailed under him. But you never know what happens in the future.”