The Arsenal starlet stole the headlines against Brazil at Wembley, but the collective competence and confidence of Roy Hodgson’s men was the biggest positive
By Liam Twomey at Wembley
Many of those who came to Wembley on Wednesday evening did so hoping for a night of entertainment. What they got instead was a night of surprises.
Ashley Cole resoundingly cheered by England fans. A missed penalty bringing good news for once. A confident and dynamic England side pinning back a passive and disjointed Brazil. The exotic, prodigious and celebrated talents of Neymar and Oscar outshone by a young man from Hitchin.
This was a far from typical Three Lions performance and, fittingly, it yielded a satisfyingly novel reward: a first victory over football’s most stylish superpower for 23 years – even if the wait for a first competitive triumph goes on – and a welcome 150th birthday present for the Football Association.
It was deserved, too. England were the better team from the outset, pressing the startled Brazilians high up the pitch and forcing several unexpected errors. This policy looked unwise on occasion as Neymar and Oscar were afforded time and space on the counterattack, but in taking the risk the hosts seized the initiative.
And it was here that Roy Hodgson’s men seemed to experience a genuine epiphany: English players can, in fact, pass a ball with speed, accuracy and purpose. And they did it, time and again.
For once, England’s midfield looked well balanced, assured and effective. Steven Gerrard largely tamed his box-to-box urges in favour of making the play from deep, while Tom Cleverley buzzed around further forward and Jack Wilshere linked everything together with the kind of effortless mastery which reminds us that Arsenal were never alone in missing him.
Wilshere’s brilliance, while exhilarating, was not one of the surprises. This was hardly his ‘coming of age’; for that, you would have to go back to February 2011, when as a fearless 19-year-old he shone against a Barcelona midfield which was in the process of writing itself into history.
But Wednesday did offer welcome proof that he is once again scaling the heights which, barring any further misfortune, will make him integral to club and country for the next decade. Having been bailed out for an unfortunate handball by Joe Hart’s penalty save on 19 minutes, he was at the heart of all of England’s best work in a pulsating opening half.
He tormented the athletic duo of Ramires and Paulinho, jinking and gliding his way past them in a manner akin to Andres Iniesta and few others, before invariably retaining the awareness and presence of mind to pick out an incisive pass. Were it not for an unusually errant finish from Theo Walcott and a good stop from Julio Cesar, he would also have claimed a magnificent assist.
But the midfield positives extended beyond Wilshere. Gerrard produced another controlled display which gives the lie to those who claimed he lacked the tactical discipline to adapt his game from the rampaging midfield general his body will no longer allow him to be.
In recent months he has emerged as a veteran and leader of real substance for club and country. One suspects more cohesive and dangerous opponents might expose this England side’s lack of a more defensively-minded holding player, but on the night Gerrard barely put a foot wrong.
Cleverley, too, was impressive. While not as immediately noticeable as his midfield partners, he showcased in his allotted 45 minutes that quality too many footballers born to this land seem to overlook: keeping the ball. His work might not have made headlines, but both Wilshere and England’s control of the match suffered when he was withdrawn.
Fortunately, however, the man who replaced him offers different qualities. Frank Lampard is too long in the tooth now to ever master the art of tiki-taka, but he remains the finest goalscoring midfielder of his generation. When Gary Cahill’s moment of madness wiped out England’s lead less than three minutes into the second half, he was always more likely than most to restore it.
In the event, his finish was remarkable, and yet entirely in keeping with an incredible career: Instant, instinctive, and devastatingly accurate.
There are strikers who spend their entire careers trying – and failing – to become as clinical in the penalty area as Lampard has been for some 10 years now. Even at 34, Roy Hodgson does not want to lose him, making Roman Abramovich’s wildly different assessment appear all the more foolish.
It is heartening to see an England midfield which actually fires the imagination. Gerrard and Lampard are capable of contributing in reduced circumstances for the next two years, while the burgeoning Wilshere-Cleverley axis can be the hub of the national side for many more to come.
Reaching the dizzying heights of possession and creativity achieved by Spain’s most golden of golden generations is, of course, too much to even hope for.
But last summer a clumsy and clueless England were run ragged by a 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo. On this evidence, the future need not yield a similar fate.
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