Chris Smalling believes the departures of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand from Manchester United have forced him to “step up” his standards.
Former United captain Vidic and fellow centre-back Ferdinand left Old Trafford in 2014, bringing to an end a remarkably successful defensive partnership that helped to bring five Premier League titles, the Champions League and the Club World Cup to Old Trafford over seven years.
United boss Louis van Gaal has been criticised for failing to spend big on defensive reinforcements in the past but the form of Smalling this season has been a real positive in an otherwise inconsistent campaign so far for the club.
And the England international admits he is relishing the challenge of attempting to fill the void left by Vidic and Ferdinand.
“I think with two of the older players going in Vida and Rio there was a case where you need someone to step up,” he said. “I saw that as my opportunity to step up and touch wood it will keep going.
“Being around players like that and training with them and knowing how they go about their business on a day-to-day basis, as soon as those two left there was a big void that someone had to step up and I have tried to do my best to try and make an impact as much as they have.
“I knew when I did get a consistent run that I could go from height to height.
“At the moment I am getting confident and I am just looking forward to the next game, to putting down a marker and keep building.”
Smalling has been praised for his form by both Van Gaal and captain Wayne Rooney, who has compared his international team-mate to the very best defenders in the world based on his performances this season.
“When you hear such good praise, especially from Wazza and the manager, you just want to show them that it’s not just words that are meaningless,” said the 25-year-old.
“He says a lot of things that I try to take on board and I think he wants you to express yourself, and when he shows a trust in you I just want to repay it and do as well as I can.”
Smalling scored the winner in the Champions League victory over Wolfsburg last month and was denied a goal by a fine Joe Hart save in the dying minutes of the 0-0 draw with Manchester City on Sunday.
The former Fulham man admits he wants to improve his record in the opposition penalty area, adding: “I think every manager wants a player to chip in and, as a centre-half, you should chip in with four or five goals a season because of the amount of set plays we get. That is a target of mine.
“I am getting a few chances now and hopefully I can keep popping up and help with the burden on the strikers.”