Roy Hodgson witnessed signs of great promise in midfield and attack but evidence of exasperating fragility in defence
Jack Wilshere had long since been announced as the sponsors' man of the match, recognition that was boomed out over the Tannoy to whoops of appreciation from the stands, when this match edged into its third minute of added time and Brazil sensed one last glimpse at goal. The ball veered into the penalty area with Neymar anticipating a collection, only for the man of the moment to nip in and smuggle possession away.
It was fitting the rookie should have the evening's final word. These remain early days in Wilshere's reintegration at this level, with his appearance here a first start to cherish since the Euro 2012 qualifying draw with Switzerland back in June 2011. It was the display of a player making up for lost time. Every dart between gold-shirted opponents or swerve away from a lumbering marker, each accurately pinged pass or eager push upfield: they all offered such promise. "Grasp the nettle," the manager Roy Hodgson had urged on the eve of this occasion, and here was a player seizing an opportunity.
It is Wilshere's dynamism that makes him so refreshing. Even on only his seventh outing with the seniors he felt assured enough in his own ability to drive more experienced team-mates on and force opponents into retreat. It had begun with a neat interchange – the first of many – with his captain, Steven Gerrard, after only 87 seconds and a surge beyond three visiting players as he bit into enemy territory. Ramires and Paulinho, one a European Cup winner and the other destined to grace the Champions League at some stage soon, appeared alarmed at times by the opponent buzzing between them. Gerrard had claimed his team-mate had the potential to become "one of the best in the world", and this was evidence to back up all the bold predictions.
England need him to make an immediate mark. Qualifying Group H has already felt awkward and this team needs an injection of impetus with a testing trip to Montenegro to follow the anticipated walkover against San Marino next month. Wilshere's reputation actually swelled while he gnashed in frustration on the sidelines, ankle and knee problems having cost him a year of his fledgling career, such is the yearning for him to succeed and spearhead the next generation. Just as admirable here was his reaction to the harsh concession of a penalty for handball as he turned his back on Ronaldinho's clip into the penalty area. He was unperturbed, albeit having been spared damage by Joe Hart's double save, and he tore headlong back into the contest.
He may not need the shielding from the limelight the set-up had anticipated. "I was trying to protect him in the build-up but he doesn't need it," said Hodgson. "As long as he's comfortable, why should I worry?" The delicious pass inside a back-tracking Adriano for Theo Walcott to collect midway through the first half and draw a fine save from Júlio César justified the hype. Wayne Rooney converted the rebound but his 33rd international goal had been constructed at Arsenal and the winger's 75-minute contribution spritely throughout.
Yet it was in his midfield as a whole that Hodgson will have gained most reassurance. The management had required evidence that the Gerrard and Wilshere partnership can thrive. Fabio Capello had so craved pairing them together and would have done in the corresponding friendly window in Copenhagen two years ago only for the senior man to withdraw from the friendly against Denmark with an injury sustained with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. Their time together since had been limited to 13 minutes in Stockholm last November as Wilshere eased himself back on to this scene but theirs does appear a natural fit. Gerrard, at 32, can drop more naturally into that deeper lying midfield role these days and allow Wilshere to scurry at will. They looked a seasoned pairing for long periods.
Throw in the tidy presence of Tom Cleverley, who has become a fixture of Hodgson's team with this a seventh start of the campaign, and there is movement on and off the ball to savour in this midfield. The manager had prompted raised eyebrows by claiming in the build-up that England "can compete with the best in that area", but the fluidity offered by that trio was encouraging. Frank Lampard's fine finish after the break even suggested strength in depth.
This being England, a reality check of sorts was provided at the back. In Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, England employed a fifth different central defensive partnership in six matches and it said much that, by the end, it was still hard to fathom the footballing reasons why Rio Ferdinand cannot force his way back into contention with this team. If the Manchester United defender is not under consideration because he would constitute a Rolls Royce of a substitute, then why does that policy not apply to Lampard? Yet, while that remains something for the management to ponder, this was a night to be positive. Wilshere clearly belongs.