Centre-back Chris Smalling believes Jose Mourinho has instilled a defensive solidity at Manchester United after they recorded their 14th clean sheet of the Premier League season at Burnley.
United are yet to concede a goal in 2018 and have gone 504 minutes since last conceding when Burnley midfielder Steven Defour’s free-kick beat David de Gea on Boxing Day.
So while all the talk surrounding United has been about the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez, an attacker, it is their diligent work at the other end that is keeping them at the head of the pack chasing leaders Manchester City.
14 - David de Gea has kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in Europeâs big five leagues this season (14). Reliable.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 20, 2018
Along with Chelsea, United have the stingiest defence in the division and Smalling credited Mourinho’s work in forming that solid base following the 1-0 win over the Clarets.
“I think we’re well drilled,” he said.
“Even last year I don’t think we conceded many goals. It’s good that as a team we can shut up shop and not give the other team too many chances, knowing that more often than not we’re going to go up the other end and score because certain teams can only keep us out for so long.”
Smalling has started the last two games at the heart of the defence with Phil Jones in a centre-back partnership which has not always been available to United’s managers due to injuries to both men.
However, the two know each other well – Smalling having joined United in 2010 and Jones moving a year later.
“It’s comfortable; it’s great playing alongside him,” Smalling added.
“While all the boys are running hard for us at the front, if we can stop those goals it’s brilliant.”
Mourinho’s side temporarily reduced City’s lead at the top to nine points before Pep Guardiola’s men re-established a 12-point cushion by beating Newcastle later on on Saturday.
Smalling is retaining hope City can still be caught and knows United have to amp up the pressure if they are playing before their rivals as they did on Saturday.
“We’ve all been there where leads have dwindled and teams have been caught, but we can only focus on ourselves,” he added.
“There is still a big points gap and we just need to make sure we win our games because if we don’t then there’s no point even talking about it.
“When we play on a Sunday, we’re well aware of watching Soccer Saturday and all the scores. It is a little blow if you see all the teams around you winning, so we can only do our job.”
Burnley have now gone eight games without a win since beating Stoke in December to temporarily move into the top four.
Yet having run United close at Turf Moor, goalkeeper Nick Pope is confident their fortunes will change if they maintain their good performances.
“I think that’s a big thing – it can’t be underestimated, playing well,” he said.
“If we stay in this vein of form then the points will come.
“We’re working hard every day in training to make it happen at a weekend. We’ll continue that and with these performances results will come.”