Defiant Smalling is determined to prove England's critics wrong at Euro 2016
Chris Smalling is determined to confound those doubting England's defensive capabilities at Euro 2016.
A decade on from the likes of Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Jamie Carragher jostling for a starting berth, Roy Hodgson has three out-and-out centre-backs to choose from in France.
A number of former internationals have suggested the triumvirate of Gary Cahill, Smalling and John Stones could prove England’s undoing this summer, with the latter coming under particular scrutiny after a difficult end to Everton’s campaign.
Such comments have been given understandably short shrift by Smalling, even if they can provide extra motivation.
“I think if anything it just gives you another challenge 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.”
Individual errors in the warm-up friendlies against Turkey and Australia highlighted that issues still needed ironing out, although Smalling pointed to the nation’s long-standing qualities of being “tactically aware and solid”.
The 26-year-old does not see England’s lack of a left-sided central defender as a problem – “at the end of the day we are centre backs and we are there to defend” – and is looking forward to pressing home that point in Marseille.
Smalling is a shoo-in for the starting line-up against Russia off the back of his best-ever season at Old Trafford, running the remarkable David de Gea close for Manchester United’s player-of-the-year award.
“It was one that was very consistent,” he said of a fine campaign individually, if not collectively.
“I always knew that if I can stay injury-free and just start the season very well, and get a good run, that I always could produce consistent performances,” said Smalling.
“It’s nice to have done it over the last 18 months but it is about continuing it now, do it for many years to be considered a very good centre-back.”
The 25-cap defender will certainly have to be at his best this weekend to contain the towering Artem Dzyuba, with Russia’s 6ft 4.5in striker likely to prove a baptism of fire for England’s backline.
“This week we’ve started to do our team meetings and selected some more player analysis,” Smalling said, having dismissed injury concerns brought by an ice pack being pictured on his knee.
“Obviously he is a big guy and I think it is going to be a very physical battle.
“But that is something in the Premier League we face week in, week out so that’s something I enjoy.”
The centre-back is smart enough to know he cannot play exactly the same as in the Premier League, though.
Former referee David Elleray, technical director of the International Football Association Board, recently spoke to the group about rule changes as UEFA prepare to crack down on indiscipline.
“I think maybe a factor in the Premier League you maybe do one or two fouls before a booking comes, whereas now they may clamp down sooner,” Smalling, sent off in last month’s FA Cup final, said.
“I think it’s just tiny little things like that, really – not things that will distract away from how we normally play, and individually play.”
Euro 2016 build-up: Page 22