Chris Smalling has credited Louis van Gaal for the recent improvement in his defensive game with England and Manchester United.
Smalling will head into Euro 2016 as England’s first-choice centre-half, with the 26-year-old likely to be paired with Chelsea man Gary Cahill in the heart of the defence.
It caps another positive season for the Manchester United defender – although he has struggled to eliminate individual errors from his game at times.
Discussing the effect of Van Gaal, who was sacked as United manager in May, Smalling praised the much-maligned Dutchman, who has been replaced by Jose Mourinho.
“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.”
Not so long ago Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry were the kind of players at the Three Lions’ disposal – options Roy Hodgson would no doubt love to have in France.
The England boss has decided 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.
Such comments have been given understandably short shrift by Smalling, even if they do provide some extra motivation.
“I think if anything it just gives you another challenge to just to prove people (wrong),” he said ahead of Saturday’s 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.”