Manchester United and England defender Chris Smalling has hailed Louis van Gaal for the recent improvement in his defensive game.
After a solid season for United at the heart of Van Gaal’s defence, Smalling was key as United conceded just 35 Premier League goals – a record no other side could better. And now the Greenwich-born defender will head into Euro 2016 as England’s first-choice centre-half and barring injury, he will start Saturday’s opening group game alongside Chelsea man Gary Cahill.
But the 26-year-old is in doubt who to credit for his steady progress, despite Van Gaal’s sacking last month.
“It was great working with Louis and getting a good run of games,” said Smalling. “Knowing Louis, he’s one that’s very tactically aware. Despite the ups and downs of the season, I think on the whole we as a team were very solid.
“We didn’t concede too many goals throughout the season. That’s something he really implemented on us, whereas in a couple of the previous seasons we did concede a lot.
“That season he really drilled us from the front right to the back in terms of how we move, how we shift, and that’s obviously helped me because that’s a large part of my game. I think a lot of the defence took a lot of credit from that.”
England chief Roy Hodgson has opted to take just three out-and-out centre-backs to the European Championship and a number of former internationals have suggested the defence could prove their undoing this summer.
It’s a theory which Smalling has been quick to bat down.
“I think if anything it just gives you another challenge to just to prove people (wrong),” he said ahead of the Group B opener against Russia.
“There is always doubts, whether it’s with England or whether it’s with your club form.
“It’s just one of those that there is someone else that can come in and do a job better say me or someone else.
“I think it’s just a time to stand up and be counted, and show everyone that you’re good enough – more than good enough – to do that job.”