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When you play for Manchester United, you automatically put yourself in the spotlight, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There aren’t the games against mid-table sides where you can play at 70/80%. Opposition raise their game against United, whether they’ll admit it or not. Always have, always will.

Since the break-up of the almost insurmountable defensive duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the 20-time top flight champions have been lacking that formidable centre-back, one that represents that final stumbling block for an attacker en route to goal.

Sergio Ramos looked a potential candidate to fill that void, but it seems he was just hampering after a new contract at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund made Mats Hummels captain so he’d stay in the Ruhr area, while John Stones’ transfer fee put off Ed Woodward and his band of merry men.

However, with no central defenders coming in this summer, rather than make do, Chris Smalling has somewhat surprisingly stepped forward and become the focal point of a more rigid-looking United backline, and with little other option, the England defender’s rise to prominence is a timely one.

Having played just a handful of games for Fulham before United splashed out £12million to secure his services, Smalling was somewhat throw to the vultures, and fans were quick to jump on his back.

“Clumsy” and “cumbersome” are a few of the printable descriptions of Smalling’s first five years at Old Trafford, where the 25-year-old has always been a key member of the first-team, but never first name on the team sheet.

As the transfer window slammed shut earlier this month, the moans from around Old Trafford were audible across Europe as Chris Smalling headed to San Marino for England’s Euro 2016 qualifier, with the realisation of another season with the injury-prone Phil Jones and unsteady Smalling in defence hitting home.

Yet, those pessimistic fans expecting yet more defensive woe have been pleasantly surprised by United’s improvement in that area, even without David de Gea to bail them out, and Smalling has to take a huge amount of credit for that.

Playing alongside Daley Blind, who is naturally a left-back of central midfielder, not a central defender, Smalling has looked assured, commanding and above all error-free so far this season.

Rio Ferdinand he is not, and sometimes he is still prone to the odd array pass, but in a team full of ball players, Smalling’s presence is what he is in the team for.

“It could be better. For a trainer-coach or a manager you always want more, but he makes steps in that. Defending he was always the best,” boss Louis van Gaal eulogised of Mike, I mean Chris Smalling earlier in the season – high praise from a man who has worked with his fair share of talented defenders.

Smalling has been handed the armband on several occasions, and is often by his manager’s side in press conferences or post match interviews – his stock is rising all the time.
Against Liverpool, Christian Benteke offered Smalling a tough physical battle, but with an air of confidence yet to been seen in his United career to date, Smalling brushed aside the Belgian’s advances.

PSV coach Aad de Mos identified Smalling as the weak link ahead of their midweek Champion League clash, stating that the Dutch champions would simply “give Smalling the ball”, but in another example of his growing self-belief, the United captain for the evening almost waltzed through the entire PSV defence to score, and make De Mos at his words.

He was not at fault for either goal in Eindhoven, and cut a frustrated figure, with his team-mates’ defending not living up to his high standards.

With only Martin Skrtel making more clearances this season out of the top four contenders, Smalling’s no-nonsense approach has endeared him to the fans as well as his manager, and being the standard-bearer for such simple, but effective defending has to remain Smalling’s calling.

And being somewhat of a stalwart in a new-look United squad, Smalling’s senior status makes his role even more important, and should he grasp this chance, United could build their team around their new found defensive bastion.

How times have changed.

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