Most people will tell you potential doesn’t have a price, but it does if you’re Manchester United. The Red Devils have paid £12m to find out whether Fulham have let go of a future England international in Chris Smalling.
The deal has to go down as a gamble on United’s part, and a very good piece of business for the west Londoners. Picked up from Maidstone United for a voluntary donation of just £10 000, Smalling has made just a handful of appearances for the Whites – impressing on most occasions, but also scoring an unfortunate own goal and conceding a poor Europa League penalty. He replaced Brede Hangeland ably when the Norwegian was injured and does seem to have a head far more mature than his 20 years, but do these reasons justify such a hefty transfer to the current Premier League champions? Probably not, but United – despite all the talk surrounding their finances – can afford to take that chance. Fulham, on the other hand, cannot afford to turn such an offer down. After all, his early promise could merely be a honeymoon period for a player who was all set for university before Fulham came calling – only time will tell whether the hangover is to come. This writer does believe Smalling is the real deal, but the immediate deal was cash on the table, which chief executive Alistair Mackintosh would have been a fool to decline. The money can now, hopefully, be used to bring a few players in to strengthen the squad, money which would not have been seen if Smalling stayed and saw his potential fade like so many other prospects at the club.
The Under-21 international is staying until the end of the season, and is needed as first-choice back up to Hangeland and Aaron Hughes. The deal went through on Wednesday, but the certainty of his big move failed to fully motivate the youngster against Tottenham the night before – he was part of the Fulham side which was routinely beaten at White Hart Lane. And of more concern than losing a hot prospect is the club’s plummet in form since Christmas which has seen four league defeats from four. Although neither side created many chances, Spurs were far better and got at their London rivals by closing them down quickly all over the pitch – a tactic employed by the Whites’ opposition in three of the last four Premier League games (all somewhat comprehensive defeats). While John Pantsil and Paul Konchesky bomb forward at every opportunity to provide much-needed width, there were no recognised full-backs in Roy Hodgson’s White Hart Lane line-up. Thus, with the pressing of Danny Murphy forcing Damien Duff inside to help, combined with Hughes and Chris Baird – it was a defensive system which meant there was little penetration from the visitors in the final third.
Coinciding with this worrying lack of threat going forward is the form of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who has had two very poor outings in a week. The goal Accrington Stanley scored at the weekend was due to the Australian parrying a ball back into play that was going yards wide of the post – usually a rare error from the ever-present No 1. The mistakes slipping into the defence over recent fixtures have seemingly spread to Schwarzer who, usually so commanding in the air, wildly missed a punch from a looping cross before Bjorn Helge Riise failed to usher it behind, resulting in the opening goal. While Riise should have hacked it clear, his goalkeeper should have dealt comfortably with the situation initially. The two combined again for Tottenham’s second. Fair enough, it was a wicked deflection off Riise’s head, but this writer cannot help but feel Schwarzer should have been standing at the other side of the goal – being behind the wall somewhat nullifies the point of having one in the first place. Schwarzer’s recent performances are uncharacteristic, however, and the Australian stopper remains one of the top goalkeepers in the league. All he needs – like the rest of his teammates – is some confidence. A return to Craven Cottage will do wonders in that respect.
Aston Villa have been short of league form themselves and have failed to score in their last three. If the visit of a misfiring Villa strike force to a ground where they consistently underperform doesn’t represent an opportunity for a Fulham clean sheet, then nothing does. While logic suggests a 0-0 draw, nothing with this club is that simple. There will be goals.