England's World Cup preparations continued in Miami's Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday with a 2-2 draw against Ecuador in difficult conditions. It was a good workout for Roy Hodgson's men, who now have just one warm-up game left—against Honduras in three days time—before their World Cup campaign gets under way with a match against Italy a week later.
England may be infamous for their boring brand of football during recent tournaments, but one area where they were always well-stocked was at centre-back. Rio Ferdinand is a bona fide England great and one of the finest Premier League players to date; John Terry, despite some detestable antics on and off the field, was (and arguably still is) a genuinely world-class defender; and Ledley King may well have proven to be better than both had he not suffered horrifically from injuries.
One look at Hodgson's squad for this summer's World Cup and it quickly becomes clear that strength in depth at centre-half no longer exists for England. Gary Cahill has had a superb season for Chelsea and is firmly the No.1 choice, but together with Phil Jagielka, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, there is a lack of real quality at the heart of the defence.
Luke Shaw's form for Southampton this season has seen many people get excited about his future. He is excellent going forward, always wants the ball and is comfortable in possession. He almost certainly has the tools to go far in the game.
However, right now, Leighton Baines possesses far more defensive nous than Shaw and is therefore firmly in pole position to start against Italy in England's first group game on June 14.
Shaw lost his man for Ecuador's opener, a momentary lack of concentration of the kind that gets punished at this level. He is worth his place in the squad and represents England's future, but Baines is the main man right now.
England's best player in Miami, by some distance, was Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a player with searing pace, wonderful creativity and an admirable work ethic.
Time and again his pace and directness were the catalyst for attacks, but he left the field early after appearing to jar his knee. It did not look good as he writhed around in pain. Hodgson will be nervously awaiting the diagnosis from England's medical team, as he confirmed via the Guardian's Dominic Fifield:
His knee buckled under the challenge as the player turned into him. He’ll have a scan tomorrow, I’d imagine. When we’ve had the scan, we’ll know more.
When I have to cross that bridge, I’ll do that. At the moment I don’t know the extent of the injury. I’ll have to wait before making any other comment.
Rarely in recent memory have England had such a wealth of attacking options, with an array of young, exciting players now gracing the squad.
Ross Barkley looked absolutely superb again, with his quick feet and obvious intelligence marking him out as a real star of the future, and Oxlade-Chamberlain also looks to have an exciting future.
Oliver Kay of the Times felt England looked sharp going forward, saying, "Enjoyed England 2 Ecuador 2 in Miami. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barkley, Lambert the real beneficiaries but only Ox has chance of starting v Italy."
Add to that Raheem Sterling, who was sent off here in bizarre circumstances but looks to be an incredible prospect given he is just 19, and, for once, England look to have an inspiring forward line full of pace and ingenuity.
Credit to Hodgson for trying something new after a succession of England managers persisted with 4-4-2 and a midfield pairing of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but tonight's use of Lampard and Jack Wilshere as a deep-lying combination did not really work.
Wilshere is a strange entity. At 18, he looked like the finest midfielder England had produced since Paul Scholes, yet his progress has stifled somewhat since. He grew into the game in the second half in Miami, though, with his neat and tidy passing keeping England in possession of the ball when they would otherwise have surrendered it.
However, he and Lampard lack the necessary defensive bite that will be needed at the World Cup against the best sides.
International friendlies are sometimes drab affairs that leave us wondering what purpose they actually serve. This one, however, was useful, and provided Hodgson's men with a stern test.
They were put under pressure defensively, with Ecuador's pace down the flanks particularly tricky to deal with; as a result, when England were in possession they had to move the ball quickly. It was entertaining, which, let's face it, is unusual for an England friendly, with the game played at a quick pace in 27 degree (celsius) heat.
In terms of acclimatisation and a technical workout, this game was a definite success.