The Premier League has seen its fair share of world-class centre-halves since its inception and will continue to churn out defensive marshals as long as it remains the highly competitive league it is. The likes of Sol Campbell, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have been rightly instated into the league’s Hall of Fame and have epitomised the importance of a side to the game that doesn’t involve scoring goals and dribbling past players. While their pedigree is yet to be matched by the current crop of top-flight defenders in the country, there are a couple of players who have been recognised and praised for their footballing knowledge and awareness at the back.
Two players that come to mind in that regard are Jose Fonte and Chris Smalling. Both centre-halves enjoyed a stellar season and were lauded for their efforts at the back. While Southampton ended the campaign in sixth place, their highest ever league position, Manchester United endured a disappointing year, despite winning the FA Cup as they were consigned to a fifth-placed finish, just outside the Champions League places albeit on goal difference against their cross-town rivals, Manchester City.
Nevertheless, both Fonte and Smalling enjoyed excellent seasons from a personal viewpoint and with the former linked with a move to Old Trafford amidst speculation regarding his future in the south coast, it seems all but appropriate to ascertain whether the Portuguese would be an upgrade on Smalling, should a potential transfer materialize.
Keeping last season’s outings as the metric for comparison, it is worthwhile noticing the number of appearances they clocked up. Both players made a combined total of 72 starts in the top flight with Fonte in the team sheet of all but one match throughout Southampton’s campaign and Smalling missing just three games due to minor injury concerns. Both centre-halves established formidable defensive partnerships with Virgil van Dijk and Daley Blind respectively and were instrumental in earning their sides positive remarks in that regard.
As far as their individual performances are concerned, neither defender has been overwhelmingly better than the other, given a balanced ratio of defensive requirements. While Fonte blocked more shots and cleared more threatening balls, Smalling won more aerial duels and intercepted more passes. All four aspects of the game are imperative for a stable backline and differences in numbers do anything but ascertain which one of them was better last season.
Interestingly, it is the other side to their game that may prove conclusive. Smalling’s set piece antics have been widely observed and questioned, given the Englishman’s tendency to tug his marker’s shirt. He was penalised for impeding Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic at St James Park in January 2016 and that highlighted a major flaw in his game. He has also committed more fouls and picked up more bookings than his counterpart although there have been no defensive errors from open play throughout his season, unlike Fonte.
The individual’s experience also comes handy at some stage and at 32, Fonte has definitely played more games than Smalling, 26. Whether he is an upgrade on Smalling remains to be seen and with the transfer window drawing to a close in a couple of weeks’ time, bringing Fonte to Old Trafford would add some much-needed mentorship and quality to the backline. Statistically, Smalling may have had a better season but Fonte was not too far behind.