With Liverpool's Gerrard As His Minder, Arsenal's Wilshere Proves He Is World Class
It all began predictably enough. The pre-match build-up was all about the potential pairing of Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere but for the opening fifteen minutes England’s technical deficiencies were foregrounded and it was the Brazilian midfield that set the pace.
Rather than Wilshere, early proceedings were dominated by Brazil’s own London-based starlet: as well as flitting about the central third exchanging angular and astute short passes, Oscar twice split England’s defence with killer balls searching for Neymar and, if the Santos forward’s touch had been better, England would have found themselves a goal down inside twelve minutes.
England remained in first gear. Wilshere overran his dribbles; Gerrard played too many passes with a typical surplus of power, surrendering possession; Wayne Rooney moved deep at the wrong times and when the ball broke, David Luiz and Dante swept up and began circulating the ball again. Things reached a nadir in the eighteenth minute when Wilshere’s right arm blocked Ronaldinho’s cross, conceding the penalty saved by Joe Hart. The save proved a turning point.
Almost immediately afterward, Rooney, Gerrard and Wilshere combined in a smooth move to create a chance for Danny Welbeck. This was the first significant instance of a quick attack from England’s more technical players but the ease with which the chance was created seemed to knock Brazil while imbuing the home side with much-needed confidence.
From this point, it was clear that Rooney’s backward movement combined with the forward thrusts of Wilshere and Tom Cleverley to give England a numerical advantage over Brazil’s relatively static midfield duo of Ramires and Paulinho.
While Oscar had impressed with elegant movement in the attacking phase, his tendency to stay high was giving his side a problem. Oscar’s positioning, combined with the Brazilian forwards’ lack of defensive inclination, meant England simply destroyed Brazil on transitions. It was this trend that saw England finish the match the better side and with a positive result to show for their supremacy.
Rooney’s opener came following an attack of which Jürgen Klopp would have been proud. Lampard’s winning goal came from another instance of England having greater speed and clarity of thought than their opponents. Throughout the second half, Theo Walcott took advantage of the lack of protection afforded to Adriano to repeatedly skin the left-back.
Roy Hodgson deserves a great deal of credit for the work done with England’s senior players, who – if we are being blatantly honest – have never previously shown such modern attacking intelligence in international matches.
We became used to seeing England play as a team again under Fabio Capello but the standout feature of Hodgson’s tenure has been the comprehensive organisation of his Three Lions. Every player knows his role and players like Rooney and Gerrard, previously vested with too much freedom by trusting managers, have benefited from having clear and detailed instructions within a collective framework.
The reinvention of Gerrard as a holding midfielder, in particular, could only be made possible by a coach as rigorously instructive as Hodgson. While the Liverpool captain could not help himself on a couple of occasions – a typical, gormlessly ambitious Hollywood ball towards the end of the match drew groans from the Wembley crowd – he was for the most part calm on the ball and gave the official Man Of The Match, Jack Wilshere, a platform on which to play.
And play the Arsenal midfielder did, prompting with passes of weight and finesse unfamiliar to those used to watching England. As Oscar did for Brazil, he took the ball from his two more defensively-minded colleagues and made things happen. The difference between the two was that Wilshere joined in the defensive phase, giving his team numerical strength when his direct opponent did not. Simply by playing his part in England’s off-the-ball 4-1-4-1, he won the battle of the two playmakers.
An unimaginable amount of pressure is going to be heaped on Wilshere in the run up to the 2014 World Cup and Roy Hodgson is understandably keen to keep hype to a minimum, but there is no denying that in the Arsenal youngster England have their first ever modern midfielder and a very capable one at that.
While he is far from perfect – his dribbling is not quite as good as he seems to believe it is and his fiery temperament will doubtless be exploited in Brazil – he has an understanding of football’s true nature that England’s Golden Generation lacked. It is essentially a game of space manipulation and decision-making and Jack Wilshere understands how to use space and makes good decisions. Not only that, he makes other players make good decisions.
With the disappointment of the Gerrard/Lampard combination forever etched in the memories of every England supporter who had to sit through agonising years of brain-dead midfield faffing, it is understandable that a player like Wilshere is praised from the rooftops simply for being smart. His introduction has already seen England move up a gear.
When England beat Spain at Wembley in November 2011, it was rightfully seen as a fluke, the statistical anomaly that will occasionally pop up when an extremely limited side defends resolutely against a far superior one for ninety minutes. This was different. This was facing a genuine power and thoroughly outplaying them.
While expectations must be kept in check – England still stand next to no chance of lifting the World Cup in two years – one does get the sense that Roy Hodgson’s England adventure will from now on be an awful lot more fun for supporters than previously imagined.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @robbro7