United shore up England defence

Posted by Mark Payne

Chris Smalling and Phil Jones could be United's long-term successors to Nemanja Vidic and Rio FerdinandGettyImagesChris Smalling and Phil Jones could be United's long-term successors to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand

Manchester United's breezy win against Fulham last weekend contained good news for England fans as well as for those following England's most successful club. Not only did national talisman Wayne Rooney score a goal and sharpen up before next week's fixture with Brazil, but the centre-back pairing was good news for the Three Lions too.

"We have played quite a lot together for England Under-21s and we understand each other's game," says Phil Jones. "It is not a problem playing together at the back." Jones and Chris Smalling have lined up side by side at various stages through England's youth ranks and have built up a strong understanding.

They must surely be the future of the national team and, if Sir Alex Ferguson is to be believed, the future is now. "[Phil] Jones has more in his locker than John [Terry]," said Ferguson this week. As a man who tried to sign Terry several times during his youth, the Scot should know.

Being compared to a former England captain would go to most players' heads, not so with Jones, who seems to have his feet on the ground. A no-nonsense northerner possessing both skill and brawn, he can play with his elbows as well as stride forward majestically in a Beckenbauer-esque manner.

United fans have seen him play with a bloody nose on more than one occasion and he is not easy to push around. In many ways he is a throwback, and even looks like he could have come through the ranks with Norman Whiteside and the tough nuts of that era.

Jones is also very much a team player and shuns the kind of position-hogging tantrums that have dominated the contract negotiations of fellow England man Theo Walcott. "I am at Manchester United and I love playing for this club and I am happy to play anywhere," says the man from Preston. If he is not careful, he could end up being a fan favourite.

Played in a more advanced holding midfield role against Tottenham recently, Jones also impressed. "Jones was absolutely brilliant at Tottenham in the role we asked him to play. He did it really well. He can play anywhere," Ferguson added. Many will remember that Jones almost did play anywhere during last season's injury crisis, but he prefers to play at centre-half. "Yes I have said all along that is where I feel most comfortable," he has said.

United's recent fixture against Liverpool suggested that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic remain the strongest pairing at Ferguson's disposal, but the men in the wings are increasing their claims. Vidic's knee now needs constant monitoring and he can't be expected to play so many games in a season anymore.

It is a partnership that has impressed in flashes but, because of a combination of injuries, senior players and squad rotation, has not been seen too often. However, the ascension of Jones and Smalling for both United and England seems inevitable. In fact, it has already begun.

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