By Liam Twomey at Wembley
For Roy Hodgson, the primary goal of England’s autumn internationals was clear. “I need to be wiser in March than I am now with regards to certain players, and these are the matches to use,” he told reporters on Thursday. A day later, with the first half of his voyage of discovery completed and Chile’s raucous supporters departing Wembley with songs of victory, the England boss will have made his own exit with his mind enlightened but his mood darkened.
Hodgson and his team approached this game with confidence borne of the knowledge that while other illustrious names sweat on their fates, they are guaranteed to be in Brazil next summer. The timely Premier League success story of Southampton and the inclusion of several of their thrilling young Englishmen only added to the feel-good factor, fostering notions of a growing strength in depth in the national talent pool – notions Chile ruthlessly dispelled over 96 sobering minutes.
In truth, a full-strength England would have endured a tough evening ranked just two places below them in the much-maligned Fifa rankings. This was no idle skirmish, and the vibrant display of Jorge Sampaoli’s men vindicated their selection as opponents even as it exposed the dearth of serious options available to Hodgson all over the pitch.
Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez were lively in spurts but faded as swiftly as England’s belief after Alexis Sanchez’s seventh-minute bullet header – Hodgson afterwards admitted the latter’s international bow might have arrived too soon – while Fraser Forster’s uncertain display only brought into sharper focus the need for Joe Hart to work his way back into form and favour at Manchester City, and quickly.
Frank Lampard marked the emotional honouring of his induction into England’s band of centurions with an utterly forgettable display, while James Milner delivered another performance that marks him out as a champion of industry rather than artistry.
And then there was Jack Wilshere. Statistics do not always tell the whole story, but his first-half pass completion rate of 67 per cent – the lowest of any player on either side – was a startling and damning indictment of a player renowned for his composure in possession and on whom, it is widely believed, the fortunes of England midfields will depend for the next decade.
Even in the depths of mediocrity there were flashes of characteristic class – a slick nutmeg here, an elegant skip away from a challenge there, moments of serenity under pressure – yet this was a shadow of the player who set the world alight in his breakthrough season at Arsenal, or the one who tormented an out-of-sorts Brazil at Wembley in February. That player has not been seen for some time. This Wilshere has been a peripheral figure in the Gunners’ swashbuckling revival, despite scoring a goal of unique brilliance against Norwich last month.
In mitigation, he remains hampered by problems in the right ankle which required surgery last summer, and Hodgson admits his inclusion was the result of constant assessment and lengthy discussions with Arsene Wenger and his club's medical team. If there have been few convincing performances in his 22 appearances for club and country this term, at least there is an explanation beyond the fickle nature of form.
Yet as he bore witness to another lacklustre England midfield display, Hodgson could take no solace in knowing the cause of Wilshere’s struggles. Lampard, rightly celebrated for reaching 103 caps, looked every day of his 35 years and, when the time came for the veteran and the Arsenal youngster to be withdrawn on 71 minutes, the sight of Jordan Henderson and Tom Cleverley preparing to replace them convinced no-one that a stirring comeback was on the cards.
Once again with England at Wembley, the outstanding footballer on the pitch belonged to the visiting side. His two expertly-taken goals aside, Alexis was brilliant, darting menacingly around the final third with pace, power, skill and conviction – everything this makeshift England lacked and everything that Wilshere, at his best, is capable of providing.
Footballers have overcome far worse physical problems and if Wilshere needs inspiration to complete his own recovery, he need only look across the Arsenal dressing room. Within the space of six months Aaron Ramsey has transformed himself from a seemingly classic example of cruelly stifled potential into the outstanding footballer in the country.
Wilshere is more than capable of doing the same and, with the World Cup drawing closer and several midfield alternatives getting older, Hodgson must do everything in his power to ensure he does. In the meantime, though, the England coach's crossed fingers will be preoccupied with trying to ensure an ominous-looking Germany do not turn Wembley dejection into outright despair on Tuesday.
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