Although manager David Moyes admitted it was not the most entertaining of games, United still left Ukraine with a very handy point in their quest to reach the knockout phase.
As Arsenal, twice, Tottenham and, last year, Chelsea all found Shakhtar too good for them in the impressive Donbass Arena, Moyes and his players have every reason to be satisfied with a 1-1 draw, even if it looked like being a win for almost an hour before Taison smashed home a late equaliser.
More eye-catching though was the spirited resistance United showed to keep their hosts at bay for so long.
And, after their worst start to a league campaign since 1989, Smalling feels that was important.
"It shows we can really stick together," said the England defender.
"We know a few results have not gone our way.
"But when there are a few doubts, we need to show we have a bit of character and fight.
"Once the disappointment of that equaliser subsides and we get back home, we will see it is a well earned point that will allow us to move on."
After three defeats in their opening six league matches, Smalling realises the immense self-belief that has been such a trait of United for so long is not going to be restored immediately.
However, the 23-year-old believes the first small steps have been taken.
"You can only build confidence through performances," he said.
"This was half a performance. It wasn't great by any means but a well-earned point at such a hard place gives us some positives to work from."
Yet much the same things were being said seven days ago, after United bounced back from their mauling at Manchester City by beating Liverpool to reach the Capital One Cup fourth round.
That optimism was shattered by a staggering home defeat to West Brom, after which Moyes admitted his team had been outplayed.
This weekend, the Red Devils visit rock-bottom Sunderland. And as an international break follows immediately afterwards, Smalling accepts United cannot falter again.
"After Saturday's defeat, this week was crucial," he said.
"It was two tough away games and we have started pretty positively.
"Now we need to make sure we get three points on Saturday, then things will look a lot better going into the international break.
"If we don't get that win we have two weeks to ponder on what may have been."