Time for Wilshere to step up
There were 18 minutes remaining of England's brief World Cup campaign when Roy Hodgson decided to experiment. He opted to pair two promising central midfielders. You never know: it might just work. And so it was that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were in tandem.
Sarcasm aside, there was something fitting in the sight of the two centurions together, surely for one final time. Neither has confirmed his international retirement, but an era surely ended in Belo Horizonte. The mismatched duo are reminders of England's difficulties in midfield over the past decade; they were outstanding individually at club level but often incompatible. Admirable characters who forged a mutual respect forever coveted the same role. No manager really resolved the situation satisfactorily.
They are the last of the so-called golden generation. The man trumpeted as England's next golden midfield talent exited as Gerrard arrived. Jack Wilshere's maiden World Cup start, unlike Raheem Sterling's tournament debut against Italy, was not one to generate much hype. Often unobtrusive, largely underwhelming, it wasn't a display to crown Wilshere their successor.
Or perhaps, given the tradition of English underachievement in the centre of midfield, it was. Wilshere's finest moment was a vignette of Arsenal-style close combination play to supply Daniel Sturridge with a chance. This was a reminder of the Wilshere who scored arguably the finest goal of the Premier League season, against Norwich in October.
Not that England play like Arsenal too often. Or, indeed, that Wilshere often touches such heights. A brief career has been pockmarked by injury problems. His last start at club level came in March. He never looked fully fit in the build-up to this World Cup and it is one of the unanswered questions of England's campaign if Wilshere, rather than Jordan Henderson, would have been Gerrard's sidekick had he been sharper.
England cannot take his fitness for granted. It was once the case with Gerrard, too, whose early years were interrupted by persistent groin problems. Arsenal, with their phalanx of passing midfielders, have other options. England have fewer.
They have a vacancy for a midfield kingpin. They also have the need for an anchorman and all the recent choices -- Gerrard, Lampard, Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry and Scott Parker -- are a decade Wilshere's senior. It isn't his best position, but he may be England's finest choice in front of the back four.
Jordan Henderson's greatest asset is his energy, so it doesn't make sense to ask him to hold. Few would state the case for Tom Cleverley. The young English midfielders, such as Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ravel Morrison (assuming he can acquire the common sense to accompany his considerable talent) are equipped to advance, rather than retreat.Responsibility may have to be placed on the 22-year-old lad's young shoulders, if only due to a lack of alternatives. He should be deployed at the base of a triangle; it can be the place for a passer, even if it would be premature to brand him England's Andrea Pirlo.
A fragile defence requires shielding; it would benefit from a third central midfielder to protect them. England need to utilise the system that gave them the lion's share of possession against Costa Rica. Hodgson, like Fabio Capello, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Kevin Keegan before him, had only played two central midfielders in major-tournament matches until the game against Los Ticos. England's excruciating ordeals at the hands of Mesut Ozil and Pirlo owed much to systems that left them outnumbered.
It is all the more important a new-look back four is protected. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were rewarded for mediocre seasons with Manchester United by being given World Cup bows. It highlighted the paucity of resources. Age dictates that Phil Jagielka could now be phased out; substandard defending suggests Glen Johnson should be, too.
It offers opportunities to the rhyming pair of John Stones and Jones, each able to play as a centre-back or a right-back. There are others who could constitute the future of English defending, but each has questions to answer.
Smalling has not progressed at Old Trafford and, unlike Jones, hasn't acquired a reputation as a big-game player. Steven Caulker was relegated with Cardiff. Kyle Walker's form meant he didn't deserve to go to Brazil, even before injury ensured he wouldn't. Stones has only made 15 Premier League starts. Jon Flanagan has just 35; swiftly as he has improved, the raw Scouser seemed Liverpool's fifth-choice right-back at the start of the season.
None would be a reassuring sight in a pivotal game yet. England have to hope the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign enables some to develop and project the sense, as Luke Shaw has done, that they are capable of being a high-class first-choice for years.
From his breakthrough year at Arsenal in 2010-11, Wilshere has offered that promise. Yet the ever-present injuries have limited him to 20 caps, several of them when he wasn't in optimum condition. Those worries explain why Hodgson is keen to keep Gerrard and perhaps even Lampard, who will be 38 in Euro 2016.
When two realists reflect, though, they should realise their time is up. Both are in the select group who have won 100 caps; both international careers were unfulfilled because of the team's troubles. Now England must trust it is Wilshere's time. If not, there may be a marked lack of class in the deep-lying midfield role.