Smalling grateful for Van Gaal teachings
09 June 2016, 10:50
Chantilly - Manchester United defender Chris Smalling paid tribute to former manager Louis van Gaal on Wednesday for helping him to become a first-choice pick for both club and country.
United said farewell to defensive stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic prior to Van Gaal's arrival in 2014 and when it came to constructing a new back four, the Dutchman made Smalling a central component.
With Smalling a virtual ever-present, United had the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League last season and although Van Gaal was sacked, to be replaced by Jose Mourinho, the England defender remains grateful for his efforts.
"It was great working with Louis and getting a good run of games," said Smalling - memorably misnamed 'Mike' by Van Gaal - at England's Euro 2016 media centre in Chantilly.
"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."
Smalling, 26, will have a new centre-back partner next season after Mourinho made Ivory Coast international Eric Bailly his first new signing from Villarreal in a reported 30 million (38.4 million euros, $43.7 million) deal.
Smalling has played with several United greats during his six years at Old Trafford and cites Ferdinand, capped 81 times by England, as "a big influence".
Though relatively inexperienced himself at international level, with 25 caps to his name, the youthful nature of Roy Hodgson's squad makes Smalling something of a senior figure.
The former Fulham player is rooming beside his 18-year-old United team-mate Marcus Rashford at England's team hotel and he said that the young striker had been quick to find his feet.
"Marcus was lucky enough to know some of them because of some of the younger ages and they're around his age anyway, but to start with it's nice that he's got a couple of familiar faces who he knows," said Smalling, whose side launch their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia in Marseille on Saturday.
"Now you can see he's a lot more relaxed. You can see him on the training pitch, he's smiling. Because it's an easy squad to get to know."
Russia's chief threat at the Stade Velodrome will be carried by Artem Dzyuba, the 6'5" (196cm) Zenit St Petersburg striker who has scored nine goals in his 18 international appearances to date.
The bruising 27-year-old target man scored 27 goals in 42 games for club and country next season, but Smalling will relish the tussle with him.
"We have been watching videos this week," he said. "He is a big guy and it will be a physical battle.
"We have individual battles. Picking up the second balls is crucial and not letting him dictate. Being able to bring the ball down on his chest - we have to stop that.
"Our two central defenders will have to be very physical and aggressive against him. As defenders in the Premier League we are used to big guys and those challenges, and it's something we enjoy as centre-backs."