After a 2-0 defeat to Spain on Friday, England manager Roy Hodgson will now be looking for positives and lessons to learn from the game. With so many new players in and around the England squad, it is unfair to be too judgemental over one game; however, there is one partnership in particular which Hodgson can be positive about. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones started the game as the two England center-backs, and the Manchester United defenders played well to make a strong case to be the first choice pairing in the defence moving forward.
Ever since the Rio Ferdinand–John Terry partnership bit the dust, Hodgson has been struggling for a solid, reliable pair of central defenders. Phil Jagielka has been in and out of the team, as has Gary Cahill, John Stones has had opportunities here and there, whilst Jones and Smalling themselves have been given chances to cement a starting spot. Nobody has grasped the opportunity, though. Nobody has made themselves a certain first-choice pick.
At United this season, Smalling has showed himself to be one of the best defenders in the Premier League. It is still early in the campaign to get too carried away, but the obvious progress and commanding performances are there for all to see. Fortunately, Smalling also now seems to be translating that form into his showings in the England setup, with the game against Spain proving to be another solid display from the 25-year-old. That’s one position with a potential solution, but what about a partner for Smalling?
The 23-year-old Jones has been touted as the future pillar of the United defense for years now, but four and a half years after joining United, the wait continues. The center-back has been injured for much of the early-season games, but has recently returned to full fitness looking to prove himself. Louis van Gaal will certainly be hoping Jones now comes back better than ever, and if the game against Spain is anything to go by, then Jones at the very least will benefit playing alongside a Smalling in top form.
Against Spain, Diego Costa was kept quiet for the most part — although with Costa’s form this season, perhaps that isn’t the best recommendation for the United duo. But Spain are still one of the very best teams in the world, with offensive weapons coming from all angles. It’s incredibly testing whenever any team takes on La Roja. In a night of few positives, Smalling and Jones stood up well to the test to provide a small victory for Hodgson. The Three Lions boss should be happy with that, in addition to still having the emerging Stones up his sleeve.
Potentially, a strong partnership between Jones and Smalling may push Stones to come to the fore and fulfil his potential sooner rather than later. If it does, Hodgson will be delighted. But if not, at least Jones and Smalling are showing signs that they may finally be ready to be the commanding partnership everybody is expecting.