International friendlies are often listless affairs that offer fuel to the fire of fans who claim that international football is increasingly a poor relation of club football. The fixtures on offer on Wednesday night, however, promised excitement and promptly delivered.
Although the games are essentially meaningless, friendlies offer international managers the luxury of assessment and experimentation. For the players, they’re a chance to prove themselves capable of consideration for the future. With the World Cup next year, these games were the perfect opportunity.
Read on for some of the lessons learned from the games.
Jack Wilshere Gives England Hope
The English media have a habit of raising expectations on young players to such levels that they can only hope to fail.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this was Jack Wilshere’s first start under Roy Hodgson, that the Brazil team he faced will be stronger in Rio next year, and that his injury-plagued England career should be handled with caution.
Nevertheless, it was still satisfying to see a young player take his performances at club level and transfer them to the world stage. Wilshere’s confidence in the England midfield is a promising sign for the future, and his pairing with Steven Gerrard looked balanced and assured.
Gerrard was content to play the more experienced role, sitting back and controlling the midfield from deep positions. Wilshere, meanwhile, made confident strides forward and looked to dominate the game.
As Phil McNulty wrote for BBCSport.co.uk, the player Wilshere most resembled was another England No. 8, Paul Gascoigne. His willingness to take players on, never back down and always know where his teammates are is something that Gascoigne continually brought to the England setup throughout his career.
Regardless of Gascoigne’s trouble off the field, he was always a central figure for England, and his visible pride in pulling on the shirt should be admired and emulated.
Wilshere shows the same passion for the international game, and his performances are starting to match. Yes, it’s only a friendly victory against a Brazil side ranked 18th in the world, but it’s an encouraging sign.
Sometimes that’s enough.
Argentina Should Be Feared
Gonzalo Higuan, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero make up an attack that has to be considered the best in the world, and with Angel Di Maria in support there wasn’t anything Sweden could do about it.
Messi was denied a goal in the 3-2 victory—his stylish lob was cleared off the line by goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson in the second half—but Higuan and Aguero found the net and Argentina swamped Sweden with attacking runs from Di Maria.
The game was effectively over when the South American side went 3-1 up in the 23rd minute, but Sweden were allowed a path back into the game via some poor Argentinian defending, especially from set pieces.
Despite this, Argentina dominated possession and baffled Sweden with quick passing and clever interplay in the midfield.
If they can overcome their defensive frailties, Argentina look like the team to beat—and fear—in the forthcoming World Cup.
Neymar Isn’t Yet the Finished Article
As much pressure as has been heaped on Jack Wilshere, Neymar bears the weight of so much more. Constantly linked with moves to the biggest clubs in the world, the Brazilian has seemingly been on the brink of world dominance forever.
His pre-match comments about Wayne Rooney came back to haunt him slightly against England, and he looked slow to the ball and off the pace of the entire game. Of course, the Brasileirao season finishes in December, so this can probably be excused, but it wasn’t a performance to justify the superlatives.
Although Neymar is an immense talent, he has to consistently deliver against the best in the world to prove worthy of those sorts of accolades. They sound good as quotes delivered to the press, but ring hollow after performances like the one he delivered on Wednesday.
Gareth Bale is Wales
Gareth Bale has scored seven goals in his last nine internationals and continued that trend against Austria, scoring one and creating the other as Wales came away 2-1 winners.
Every time Wales won the ball, it was passed to Bale as the team looked to attack. Manager Chris Coleman was keen to deflect some of the praise onto Craig Bellamy (via The Independent) and a stout defence that kept the scoreline close.
However, it’s hard to deny that the side would be deficient without Bale. His eye for goal is matched by his excellent delivery, making him a constant threat to the opposition. Bellamy added some steel to the attack, but Bale remained the focus of the Austrian defence and he still won out.
Having rescued Spurs from defeat at Norwich with a spectacular goal, he set about lifting Wales to victory. Within seven minutes of each other, he had taken Joe Allen’s lofted pass in stride and powered home, then supplied a strong cross for Sam Vokes to head home.
The defence held out, as Coleman stated, but the victory was down to Bale.
Thomas Ince’s Price Will Only Rise
Liverpool were denied the chance to acquire Tom Ince in January, with reports suggesting that the Merseyside club’s valuation of the player failed to match that of Blackpool.
As evidenced by his two goals in a 4-0 demolition of Sweden’s Under-21 side, that valuation is only going to increase before the end of the season.
England’s Under-21s have now won their last seven games and kept a clean sheet in all of them, which is a promising statistic for the future of the national side. Ince has been a big part of that, and although his two goals against Sweden were his first for his country, his presence has caused problems for opponents everywhere.
In terms of his development, remaining at Blackpool—at least until the end of the season—was a smart decision, regardless of how much he could have achieved at Liverpool. His father, Paul, was stated that Blackpool should be where he remained—at least for now—and that it was important that he gets as much first-team action as possible (via SkySports.com).
A move to the Premier League seems inevitable, and he will continue to improve, but Liverpool in particular will regret not forcing the deal through in January.