Luke Shaw's sparky debut for England has left Ashley Cole's selection for England's World Cup campaign in some doubt
This was a night when the rest of the footballing world will have looked on and not so much trembled as perhaps stifled a yawn and wandered off to put the kettle on. And yet for England there was still a low-lying urgency to this 1-0 victory at Wembley against a half-speed Denmark, albeit an urgency so low-lying it was at times pretty much invisible.
Beneath the disjointed exchanges of a muted final pre-selection friendly this was still a decisive stage in the familiar business of sifting and sorting before the final World Cup cut two months from now. Even with the broad acceptance that this will be in many ways a developmental squad, the first quivering handhold as England attempt to dredge themselves up out of a swamp of gathering mediocrity, there are some tricky decisions to be made at the fringes of this unloved group of England players: the Throat-Cut Generation, the first to travel to a tournament so nakedly playing down their own hopes.
The main selection issue at Wembley was the question of who should travel to Brazil as England's likely reserve left-back: Ashley Cole or the tyro Luke Shaw, who made his debut here in the second half. It is on the face of it a fairly minor sub-plot, albeit one given some lustre by Cole's status as one of England's celebrified 100-cap greats of the largely disappointing decade just past. Plus, from a certain angle, this is not simply a question of personnel, but one that strays close to the heart both of what Hodgson's job actually is here, and also how England really want to try and play these days. Not least after a night like this when they looked – until some late urgency generated by substitutions, in particular the frisky Adam Lallana – like a team lacking in any real sense of thrust beyond an enduring doggedness.
On the face of it, and given that Leighton Baines now appears to be first choice, there seems little point in picking Cole, who performed as he usually does, rarely giving the ball away and looking classily at ease during his half on the pitch against opponents who never really pressed him. Part of Hodgson's role, we have been told, is a kind of next-gen brief, a manager not dependent on tournament results but charged above all with digging out the new breed. Cole has played the last 22 competitive internationals, but hasn't played for Chelsea since January and is likely to take a gear-shift down for both club and country at the end of this season. From a developmental point of view, to take him to Brazil would be no more than a pragmatic dead-end.
Here it seemed a little jarring that Cole should be playing for his place for the first time in his 13-year international career duing a horribly soft-pedalled first half. As a two-thirds full Wembley watched on in almost total silence, Cole began with as much urgency as anyone, three times finding himself England's most advanced player and winning the free-kick from which Steven Gerrard whipped in an excellent set piece. Say what you like about this England team. It may not be the future of elite football, but they remain unusually good at long diagonal crosses.
To a degree there is a tactical choice here too. For all his vague sense of glitz, that Premier League sheen, Cole has never been a particularly modern kind of full-back. He is instead a beautifully pure defensive player, a highly skilled, mobile orthodox defender whose best performances have come in tight rearguard tournament matches.
As England's most capped left-back gave way to their newest debutant at the start of the second half, the change in style was immediately apparent. Shaw is a more obvious attacking presence, more likely to burst forward and disturb an opposition defence, less likely at this stage in his career to expertly shackle Cristiano Ronaldo in a knockout game. Shaw made an excellent start, intercepting high up the pitch to snuff out a counterattack, then using his speed and presence to dispossess Kasper Kusk by the corner flag. He is an excellent physical specimen, a lovely natural footballer who would seem to have every gift required – cool head included – to play top-level football.
There is, of course, a huge difference between Denmark on a mute March Wembley night and the horrors of a backs-to-the-wall 45 minutes in Manaus while Andrea Pirlo does terrible, terrible things with the ball at his feet.
But here Shaw looked unafraid and rampaged nicely enough down the left. His is undoubtedly a more state-of-the-art interpretation of the full-back role, albeit England do tend to spend most of their time defending at tournaments these days. Which way do they want to play this?
On the face of it there shouldn't be an argument, given Hodgson's kid-friendly brief. Over to you, Roy. It is perhaps a bigger decision than it might look, and not just for the obvious reasons.
Another Southampton player, Lallana, provided the cross for Daniel Sturridge's winning goal, his third for England in the combined equivalent of six full 90 minutes on the pitch. Beyond which it was a night that did little to dispel the idea that England are travelling to Brazil as filler. If this really is Cole's last game for England it is hard to imagine a more underwhelmingly muted Viking funeral for one of the finest England careers of recent times.