Jack Wilshere was the standout performer on a night where England overcame Brazil
So England beat Brazil last night. For the first time in 23 years! Yes, it may have only been a friendly. Yes, it may have only been against a far-from-vintage Brazil side. And no, it may not make up for the pangs of pain I still feel whenever we see a clip of that ball looping over Seaman's head. But it was, however, a quality performance all the same. The result may not directly benefit England's chances of qualification, but tactically it was a really significant step in the right direction for Hodgson's men on the road to the 2014 World Cup. Here are six reasons why all England fans can feel positive after this latest result.
1. Fluid Formation
Since England's embarrassing exit at the hands of Germany during the 2010 World Cup, there has been an over-obsession from the English media with the team's supposed fixation with their "archaic" 4-4-2 formation (disregarding the fact that in South Africa they were actually playing more of a 4-4-1-1). In fact, in the first two games of the tournament, with Aaron Lennon lost on the right hand side, Steven Gerrard desperate to come inside from the left and Wayne Rooney simply lost and unfit upfront, England were barely playing any kind of recognizable formation whatsoever.
There was nothing wrong with England attempting to play in a 4-4-2, or any of it's variations. The problem has been the decade of trying to accommodate all their players into a formation, rather than vice versa. Erikssen was reluctant to drop anyone, Steve McClaren tried a few new things (and we all know how that ended up) and Capello went back to something resembling the Erikssen system, which worked very well in qualifying, but not at all in the actual tournament. There has also been the Gerrard-Lampard issue, but that is a topic for another day.
Then Hodgson took over just before Euro 2012 and he once again stuck with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation throughout the tournament. He was forced into this, slightly, by the players that he had available to him. Gerrard and Parker were always likely to start, but reasonable midfield alternatives such as Lampard, Barry, Wilshere Cleverley and Carrick were all unavailable for selection. Jordan Henderson was therefore the third choice midfielder. It then comes as no real surprise that he stuck with two in central midfield.
Against Brazil, however, Hodgson took a massive step forward in the development of England's tactical identity and formation. Rooney was technically playing as a lone striker, but he constantly peeled into the space in between defence and midfield in order to combine with Wilshere and Cleverley. It is something Rooney could not do in his two games at Euro 2012, but that was probably to do with Gerrard and Parker both sitting so deep. Rooney was out of form and isolated. Wilshere and Cleverley started much further up the pitch.
Further forward Welbeck started from the left but often strayed inside to create another passing option and outnumber Brazil in the centre. Walcott generally stayed wide, helping to stretch play on the right hand side. It was a level of tactical fluidity that I don't think I've ever seen from an England side in my lifetime. It was a pleasure to watch at times, which is something I never thought I'd ever be able to say about England.
2. Brilliant Joe Hart
Joe Hart saved Ronaldinho's penalty, a key moment in the game, and he was excellent throughout (Ronaldinho's penalty was actually pretty awful, but the follow up save was exceptional). It is excellent to see that he is capable of brushing off occasional poor displays after some shaky moments this season. He certainly possesses a terrific level of mental strength, character and resolve. For any chance of England making any kind of impression on the next World Cup (obviously they've got to qualify first), they will need Joe Hart to show this kind of resolve. The fatal error will probably come (this is an English goalkeeper we're talking about after all), but how he bounces back from it will be vital. Recent English history is littered with goalkeepers who have failed to recover from a fatal error. I don't need to name them; you know who they are.
3. Lack of a Left-Sided Problem
As a 23-year-old England fan who is too young to remember John Barnes in his prime, the phrase 'left sided problem' has been ingrained into me since virtually the day I was born. But as football has developed in England in the last 10-15 years, the idea of having a left-sided midfielder who is not left-footed has become less and less of an issue.
More importantly, we now have two left-backs who could both easily be considered in the top 5 in that position in the world. Ashley Cole may be 32, but he shows no signs of slowing down; he won his 100th cap last night and he's been arguably England's most consistent performer since his debut in 2001.
Leighton Baines is probably the finest attacking left-back in Europe right now. He would probably be starting for most of the top sides in Europe on current form and he is really pushing Ashley Cole for his spot.
With Ryan Bertrand's lack of game time at Chelsea stunting his development and Kieran Gibbs seemingly unable to shake off consistent injuries problems, the longer Cole and Baines continue at the top of their games, the better it will be for England. Ashley Cole having competition for his place will hopefully drive him to continue turning in excellent performances in an England shirt.
4. Promising Defence
It was unfortunate that Gary Cahill made the standout error of the match, in what was an otherwise decent display from him and Chris Smalling, because it slightly undermined what Roy Hodgson was trying to do in the game.
Defenders such as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher are now unavailable for various reasons. England are in a transitional period in this position; they have experienced centre-backs, such as Lescott, Jagielka and Cahill, alongside young up-and-coming defenders such as Smalling, Phil Jones and Steven Caulker, who have plenty of potential but very little experience.
During Euro 2012, Lescott and Terry defended exceptionally well. The problem was that, whilst both are top-quality classic English gritty defenders, neither are particularly composed on the ball. Whilst they both defended excellently during the tournament, a lot of the time the ball was just booted away, given straight back to the opposition who could launch another attack. In England's two genuinely competitive international matches since Euro 2012 (San Marino and Moldova don't really count) against Ukraine and Poland, a similar problem occurred, with Jagielka in defence rather than Terry.
Whilst both Jagielka and Lescott were available for the game last night, Cahill and Smalling were preferred to start at the back. Hodgson clearly wanted an emphasis on playing the ball out of defence, rather than just clearing it away as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This did, unfortunately, lead to Cahill giving away the ball for Brazil's goal, but he recovered well to help Smalling see out the game after Lampard put England back in front. On paper, the two may not be the finest central-defensive pairing in English history, but the benefits throughout the 90 minutes of having two centre-backs who are confident on the ball was there for all to see.
It will be interesting to see if Hodgson sticks with the two for the vital qualifier against Montenegro next month or reverts back to the arguably more reliable Lescott and Jagielka.
5. Wonderful Wilshere
Wilshere's performance in the heart of England's midfield was excellent. His link-up play with Tom Cleverley and Steven Gerrard in the first half was brilliant. It was a far cry from Euro 2012, when an unfit Scott Parker and tired Steven Gerrard battled tremendously but were often overwhelmed in midfield.
Tom Cleverley also did well in his position at the head of England's midfield triangle. He may need to prove himself a bit more of a goal threat if he is going to make the position his own, but he was composed and lively during his 45 minute first half cameo.
Steven Gerrard showed that anything Lampard can do he can do better (or just as well really), with a brilliant and disciplined deep-lying midfield role. Lampard also excelled when he came on for Cleverley at half time, helping to calm a few nerves in the opening minutes of the second half when England started to look a bit jittery after conceding the equaliser. Experience like that is priceless.
The Chelsea man will certainly be selected for all England squads for the foreseeable future, and may have done as much last night for his Chelsea future as he did for his England career. He will be 36 by the time the World Cup in Brazil starts, but whilst England have to look towards the future, there is also no use in having a load of promising youngsters in a team that haven't even qualified for the major tournament. Right now England's midfield is better off with Lampard than without, and that is all that matters.
6. Attacking Excellence
Rooney has spent most of his England career playing alongside, just ahead or just behind another striker. It seems as though Hodgson is going to try and play him alone in the meantime. It would be a surprise for him to go back to two strikers for next month's qualifiers after such a successful experiment with three forwards. He was England's second finest performer on the night, just behind Jack Wilshere, and he linked midfield and attack brilliantly throughout, also taking his goal very well.
Danny Welbeck was probably the most underwhelming player on the night. It must be taken into account, though, that he was the only player on the pitch not playing in his favoured position. His work rate was excellent and cutting inside helped England dominate the central areas of the pitch, creating space down the left hand side first for Ashley Cole, then Leighton Baines to attack. Ashley Young might be favoured in the role when fit, but whilst Welbeck wasn't really threatening in front of goal, he still put in a display that did his reputation no harm.
Theo Walcott was excellent on the right-hand side. He could have possibly been a bit more clinical in the first half, but his main role was to stretch play on the right-hand side so that Brazil couldn't defend too compactly, and he did this very well. He gave Adriano a torrid time. At the start of the season he was not a certain starter for club nor country, but is now indispensable to both. He is starting to look like the kind of player we all hoped he could be when he first burst onto the scene seven years ago.
Necessary Reality Check
I am aware that this was just a 2-1 friendly win against what was a desperately average Brazil side. Certainly the most disappointing I've seen in my lifetime. Scolari has a lot of work to do between now and the World Cup. For Brazil fans, anything less than winning the tournament on home turf will be unacceptable.
I am still taking positives from the performance, though. Tactically, England were excellent. Hodgson seems to be learning with every performance and trying to build a side for the future whilst still maintaining important elements of its present. For the first time in a long time, every England player on the pitch seemed to be playing a position naturally suited to them (apart from Welbeck, but he is still more than capable in a wide berth). If Hodgson continues this development and progression, then qualifying for the World Cup should not be a problem.
In the grand scheme of things, last night's result was obviously a bit irrelevant. But last night's performance has left this England fans feeling genuinely positive about the future for the first time in a long time. No doubt we'll get beaten by Montenegro next month and I'll come crashing back down to reality, but I'm determined to enjoy this feeling of optimism whilst I can; it's actually quite nice.