‘We can fill the gap’ on defence for Manchester United, even in David De Gea absence, says Chris Smalling

'When you consider the outgoings at centre-back, players had to step in and luckily I've been one of those' says Manchester United's Chris Smalling.

Chris Smalling shown during a Premier League match in November with Manchester United. Andrew Yates / Reuters / November 2, 2014
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Chris Smalling believes he and Phil Jones have proved they deserve to be the long-term centre-half partnership for Manchester United.

United were left with a considerable gap to fill at the heart of their defence last summer following the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. but they ended the season with the fourth-best defensive record in the Premier League.

Goalkeeper David de Gea deserves a large chunk of the credit, but Smalling and Jones, who finished the campaign as Louis van Gaal’s first-choice centre-half pairing, merit praise, too.

Smalling concedes he was facing a decisive season at United last term and he feels he demonstrated his worth.

“When you consider the outgoings at centre-back, players had to step in and luckily I’ve been one of those who has had a good run, especially in the second half of the season, the 25-year-old centre-back said, adding that he and Jones “have proven we can fill the gap. It’s one where it just builds over time and we’ve had our chance this season and now it is all about building on that next season.”

It does not look like Roy Hodgson has plans to install the pair as England’s preferred combination at centre-back any time soon, though.

After naming him vice captain, the England coach has plans to give Gary Cahill a prominent role over the next year.

Hodgson remains loyal to Phil Jagielka, too, and there are John Stones and Calum Chambers to consider, once they have come through the European Under 21 Championship.

Hodgson went with the Smalling-Cahill combination on Sunday for England’s scoreless draw against Ireland. Their performance was one of the plus points in an otherwise forgetful stalemate.

Smalling believes the friendly, which his former United teammate Paul Scholes described as a “waste of time”, was a one-off and he is confident of seeing England put on a better show when they play the final Euro 2016 qualifier of the season in Slovenia on Sunday.

“It was like we had lost the game to be honest,” Smalling said, reflecting on the Ireland friendly. “We felt we could have done a lot better.

“But at the end of the day we did keep our unbeaten run going and we kept a clean sheet so we’ll try and take some positives from it.

“We probably needed the game in Dublin, given the time off we’ve had. We needed to get it out of the way and make sure that we train really hard this week.”

Smalling and his England teammates report for duty on Wednesday to begin preparations for the game in Ljubljana.

If they win, England will move nine points clear at the top of Group E with four matches to go.

“We know if we do the job on Sunday, qualification is near enough there,” Smalling said. “And then we can go into the summer relieved and happy whereas if we don’t win this game it is a long break, so I don’t think there will be any problems with people getting up for it.”

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