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Chris Smalling resurgence shows that Manchester United are the problem

What do Memphis Depay, Romelu Lukaku, Daley Blind and Chris Smalling have in common? Each of their careers entered a significant rut at Manchester United before recovering almost immediately once they departed.

Joining as a 21-year old, Dutch international Depay never fully adjusted to life at the club. He developed a reputation for being difficult to manage and his attitude was criticised. Despite his obvious talent, a return of two goals in 33 appearances was woefully inadequate and he was eventually shipped off to Lyon.

Since that move, however, Depay is a different player. He has scored 41 goals in 99 games for Lyon, 15 of them match-winners. More significantly, head coach Rudi Garcia last week named Depay club captain. He said;

“Leadership does not wait for a given number of years. Memphis was ready on and off the pitch. I talked about it with Juninho. Memphis is a good choice. He makes efforts to speak the language and he takes French lessons. We speak to him in French so that he progresses as quickly as possible.”

As far as character references go, it hardly depicts a player who is difficult to manage.

Romelu Lukaku also became a pariah at Manchester United, despite a return of 28 goals in 66 games during a period in which creativity was sparse. He was accused of lacking pace, fitness and motivation yet, after securing a £75 million move to Inter Milan, has been on fire.

After ten goals in his opening 13 games, Lukaku equalled a club record set in the 1940s. More importantly, he has fired the club to second in Serie A, just a point behind leaders Juventus. The fans adore him and he is finally being played in a system that suits his strengths. Tellingly he revealed that he decided to leave United after Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer played him on the wing.

Daley Blind is another example. He was a member of the derided Manchester United defence who Jose Mourinho threw under every bus that he couldn’t park. Blind finally threw the towel in on his United career in 2018. The following season he established himself as a key member of the Ajax defence who reached the Champions League semi-final.

Which brings us to another former-United defender in Chris Smalling. His career stagnating, Smalling made a rare decision for a British player by attempting to revive his fortunes in a foreign league and joining Roma on loan. He has been a revelation.

At the time of writing, they sit fourth in Serie A having conceded just 14 goals in 13 games. Smalling has played in nine of them, keeping five clean sheets and scoring twice. Such has been his impact that Roma, Inter and Juventus are all apparently vying to sign the Englishman on a permanent basis. Furthermore, a first England call up since October 2017 for Smalling is apparently on the cards.

With each of the four players, but especially with Smalling, so sudden was their improvement after departing United that it seems as though the mere act of leaving the club was a significant weight off their shoulders. So who’s fault is this?

One theory is that United are still struggling to come to terms with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson after 27 years. Despite appointing David Moyes, hand-picked by Ferguson and supposedly in the same mould, in addition to serial winners Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, nobody has yet been able to stamp their authority on the club in the same way.

Ed Woodward also frequently shoulders much of the blame from supporters. He was called out by Jose Mourinho for a supposed lack of financial backing, yet Woodward has sanctioned over £800 million in spending since the Ferguson era. How interesting it was to see Mourinho then leapt into bed with Daniel Levy, far stingier with resources.

One area in which Woodward is definitely at fault is United’s failure to appoint a sporting director. After hiring and firing a succession of managers with violently contrasting playing styles, and each being given carte blanche to sign expensive players, United have ended up with an unbalanced squad that doesn’t fit any distinctive strategy.

A sporting director would undoubtedly improve this area by galvanising the scouting department and ensuring that future managers and signings are all consistent with ‘The United Way’, whatever that means these days.

The lack of a sporting director and the issues that have arisen from it go some way to explaining why players are finding life so much easier outside United than within. Indeed, should Paul Pogba ever manage to engineer that move away, what a player he might become again.

Of course the players shouldn’t be fully excused blame. Many of them, Pogba especially, are paid outrageously well, accumulating more per season than most people could dream of in a lifetime. For hundred of thousands of pound per week, you would expect a player to find a way to suit a system.

Whatever the biggest underlying cause, United are a mess. Until they find a way to fix the numerous issues currently plaguing the club, players such as Smalling will continue to struggle at Old Trafford before flourishing elsewhere. Indeed, it is telling that each of four players listed above have left in the last three years but would arguably improve their first XI at the moment.

United’s current strugglers will surely look at the likes of Chris Smalling, on the brink of an unlikely Euro 2020 reprieve, and wonder how they might benefit from departing.  And if rumours are to be believed that United have a buyback clause in Memphis Depay’s contract, will he consider the negative impact a return to Manchester might have on his own career? Player retention and recruitment are just two of the problems that United could face if they don’t find a way to purify their toxic club.

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