A season-long loan to AS Roma for the 2019/20 season seemed to finally be the end of the road for Chris Smalling at Manchester United. Or at least it should've been.
Despite a willingness from all parties involved to see Smalling move on, a deal to take him to the Italian side on a permanent basis has failed to materialise and barring a late change of pace, it looks like Smalling will remain at United this season.
It's come at an interesting time with United so desperate for defensive reinforcements, but that doesn't mean Smalling is the man for the job. In fact, it doesn't mean that in the slightest. Failure to recognise this could be catastrophic and would be a huge step backwards for the Red Devils, who would be relying on a player who is evidently not in head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's plans.
As with many potential incomings, failure to move Smalling out of the club is one of many disappointments in this summer's transfer window for United. They've been heavily criticised for their pursuit of Jadon Sancho, which now looks dead - despite having been interested for over a year and agreeing personal terms - and the imminent, late signing of free agent Edinson Cavani feels panicked. Alex Telles will sign too.
The late flurry shows a complete lack of sticking to a recruitment policy and is another example of the board failing to sufficiently back a manager in their second season; a pattern that's become familiar with fans in the post-Ferguson era.
Regarding Smalling, there is a case to suggest that after an admittedly impressive season in Rome, Smalling should be tried once more in United's defence. Their centre back options are shaky and while Harry Maguire is virtually an ever-present, United still haven't found the man to partner him. Neither Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly have done enough to nail down that role regularly and, for lack of a better option, Smalling might be the man for the job in the short-term.
Truth be told, Smalling was never more than average for United. His best moments came under Louis van Gaal - when he was mistakenly christened 'Mike Smalling' by the Dutchman - and he looked like United's best defender. This period of about 12 months was never bettered, however, and the England international was back to average, inconsistent performances under Jose Mourinho and briefly Solskjaer.
Smalling, now 30, found his level in Italy. The run of play is slower and more suited to his strengths, unlike the Premier League. There's also significantly more pressure with being a defender at Manchester United, where the expectations are incredibly high season on season. Smalling never managed to consistently cope with that pressure and there's no reason why he would all of a sudden, especially when he isn't the wanted man for the job in the first place.
Allowing his return would be Solskjaer admitting defeat and being resigned to the fact that even he is unable to truly mould a squad full of his own players. He was the one in charge when Smalling was sent out on loan and orchestrated a number of transfers involving players leaving the club, when previous managers before him had failed to do so. It's glaringly obvious, though, that there is no coherent transfer policy at United. Whether or not the head coach is involved, their say is clearly not final or strong enough to influence activity, which was key in the dismissals of both Van Gaal and Mourinho.
Solskjaer was backed in his first summer, but not so much in his second. Donny van de Beek is a solid piece of business and the late, deadline day additions will improve the Red Devils to an extent, but everything feels last minute and reactionary. Smalling isn't what United's squad needs, nor does he need to play for the club again. He's made a new reputation for himself in Italy, and ruining that with a brief second spell with United could potentially ruin his chances for the best possible move in January. And at 30 years old, his next move could likely be his last major one.
Smalling has nothing to prove at United anymore. The fans already have their reputation of him and he has already given all he possibly could to the club during his nine year stint. Playing him would not only prove disastrous on the pitch at some point, but also in the eyes of fans and onlookers of the club. It signals a clear step backwards for the club who would be admitting defeat in the transfer market, which is wholly unacceptable.