Any victory over Brazil has to be cherished and Roy Hodgson is certainly entitled to feel the good outweighed the bad even if it was a close-run thing during those moments when their shortcomings in defence threatened to undermine all the positive points that accompanied only their fourth victory in 24 attempts against the most famous team of them all.
England’s defence was generous enough at times to revive the argument about the rights and wrongs of Rio Ferdinand’s exclusion. They were also indebted to Joe Hart for his penalty save from Ronaldinho, and an even better piece of goalkeeping to deny him a second time from the rebound.
Yet Hodgson is entitled to be satisfied after a night when Wayne Rooney scored his 33rd international goal and Frank Lampard, a half-time substitute, delivered a wonderful reminder of his enduring talents with a beautifully taken winner.
Hodgson will be troubled by the manner in which England’s defence threatened to go to pieces, allowing the Brazil substitute Fred to score, but it was an encouraging night in other respects, too, not least in the form of Jack Wilshere demonstrating what an outstanding player he can be for this team.
Perhaps the most striking lesson is that in an attacking sense England look so much more fluid when Hodgson, almost exclusively a 4-4-2 man during his four decades in the management business, moves away from what he knows best. The better teams tend to regard two banks of four as terribly old-fashioned these days and, though we are still not at that point when Hodgson seems utterly convinced, it is encouraging that he is at least willing to experiment.
The manager can also be encouraged by what he saw from Jack Wilshere, namely the hard evidence that he is cut out for this level and fits snugly into a central midfield featuring Steven Gerrard in close proximity.
Wilshere was prominently involved from the start, always wanting the ball and knowing the right thing to do with it, and it was his incisive pass that sent his Arsenal team-mate Theo Walcott running clear and led to the opening goal. Walcott, operating on the right of attack, could not beat J lio C sar but when the ball rebounded off the Brazil goalkeeper it fell invitingly to Rooney just inside the penalty area. J lio C sar was now out of position, leaving the goal exposed, and Rooney is too assured a finisher these days to snatch at the opportunity.
Danny Welbeck had slashed a good chance wide shortly before, opting for his right foot from an angle that would have better suited his left, but these were moments that could encouraged England to suspect Brazil may be vulnerable in defence. It is their old problem, and England’s attacking players passed the ball well enough to expose the gaps. Rooney flashed another effort wide shortly after scoring and J lio C sar was not to know that the referee would award a free-kick against the Manchester United striker when he kept out an early header with a brilliant piece of goalkeeping.
Brazil, however, also may have suspected that the opposition defence could be susceptible at times. Neymar will be perplexed when he sees the replay of his far-post miss from Oscar’s 38th-minute cross and, though a lot of credit has to go to Tom Cleverley for putting him off, the same player should really have buried the loose ball after Hart had kept out Ronaldinho from the penalty spot. Neymar tried a clever flick when it needed a surer touch.
The penalty had been given against Wilshere for blocking Ronaldinho’s cross with his hand. Strictly speaking, the Portuguese referee, Pedro Proen a, was right but it was harsh on Wilshere, who had turned his back to the ball. Ronaldinho shimmied his way to the spot and did not strike his shot with great power but it still amounted to a wonderful demonstration of Hart’s goalkeeping ability.
The most impressive part was not actually the first save but the way he was up on his feet in a flash and diving at Ronaldinho’s feet to prevent him turning in the rebound. Neymar was first to the loose ball but Cleverley was sliding in at full pelt to spare England from going behind.
The lesson for England is that they really cannot be so generous in defence. For Cahill in particular, it was a bruising night. He had never looked in control as he moved out of defence in the 48th minute, over-running the ball and losing out to Arouca. Chris Smalling, making his first appearance in the Hodgson era, did not get close enough to Fred and the striker lashed a left-foot shot past Hart.
Cahill almost made amends with a header from Steven Gerrard’s corner but he and Smalling were both responsible, too, for another chance that Fred curled against the crossbar. Rio Ferdinand, among the Wembley crowd, will have been watching with interest.
Ashley Cole, winning his 100th cap, had gone off at half-time and England looked weaker for it. Yet they shook their heads clear. After an hour Walcott attacked from the right and, though Brazil retrieved possession, Rooney quickly won it back. Lampard’s finish was on the volley, expertly steered inside the post.