The mobility and athleticism of England's front players against Brazil have shown a possible quick route to success
It has become fashionable during England's recurrent – and recent – dark times to assume that an enduring problem with the national team is the basic absence of a coherent tactical plan: that faced with a more acutely deployed opposition England will resort to a state of no tactics, a familiar muddle of muscular aerial football. The opposite is probably true. Even the wrong plan is still a plan. In the main England have simply been a team with the wrong tactics, or with tactics – the early ball, the set-piece obsession – to which they adhere too rigidly.
Similarly, in the wake of Wednesday night's victory against Brazil at Wembley there will be a temptation to lurch towards another extreme, an urge to garland England's best players with unrealistic superlatives. To do so would be to miss the main point of an encouraging performance. This was above all a triumph for Roy Hodgson.
Not only did England play with a clear tactical plan, their tactics were notably distinct from recent times. Plus, the fact it was England's attacking play that stood out – as devised by a manager often dismissed as simply an arch defensive tactician – only adds to the sense of progress. It is all quietly, and systematically, encouraging.
It is not hard to see what Hodgson wants his team to do in attack. He has talked about it often enough. England's manager has been quite clear since the end of Euro 2012: the plan is to pack England's front five with players who are mobile and athletic and who, above all – witness the case of Tom Cleverley, now a regular starter – like to pass quickly through midfield. "The higher the level you play at, the more pace, athleticism, mobility plays a part," Hodgson said in November. "You take all the top teams today, they are all going down the route of pace, technique, as opposed to maybe routes that have been successful in the past."
This was England in their better moments against Brazil: a team with extreme pace and concerted movement going forwards. This is not an accident. Hodgson's selection was clearly tailored to produce such a performance. Danny Welbeck may be raw but as a sole striker he offers speed and willing movement. Perhaps Daniel Sturridge would have played had he been fit, but he has the same qualities. Theo Walcott repeatedly ran at Adriano from a position close to the halfway line, not always making coherent progress but providing with his running a defensive weapon too, forcing Brazil's left-back to be wary always of the space behind him.
Wayne Rooney likes to play on the move. Jack Wilshere provided a returning sense of his ability to burst past an opposition player. And even in this late incarnation Steven Gerrard has a roving presence as a holding midfielder. It is certainly the most mobile front six England have fielded in recent memory.
More than this, Wednesday offered a rare example of an England manager selecting a team to fit his tactics rather then the other way round – as was often the case under Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Perhaps in this regard Hodgson is blessed by the scarcity of real stars (or at least overblown Premier League stars) in his squad. He has made a coherent selection from the roughly equivalent players at his disposal. Rather than Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Michael Carrick and James Milner in midfield, England have players of similar quality who play a more mobile style. Instead of, say, Andy Carroll in attack (who has not scored a goal with his feet since last year's FA Cup final) Hodgson has Welbeck, whose movement fits the plan.
England will continue to defend deep against opposition who deny them the ball, as Brazil did only briefly. But they have a convincing notion of how they will attack now, as shown by the way once possession was gained the entire front five's natural bent was to move the ball swiftly, and horizontally, forwards. In this, Hodgson has borrowed something of the tactical vogue. With their speed, athleticism and neat short passing, Hodgson's Hares have mild echoes of Joachim Löw's Germany, who looked so impressive in the early stages of Euro 2012 playing their "game of sprints", an athletic, hard-running game of deep and concerted counterattack.
England's obvious happiness playing this way – this selection, these tactics – is something to be celebrated. Brazil were mediocre at Wembley, but so are many international teams. With a system that seems well-placed to wring the best from a young squad, there is reason to be genuinely optimistic about qualifying for next year's World Cup. One friendly victory changes little. But there is at least a plan here. Hodgson's England could yet be heading somewhere – and fast.