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Jun 5, 2014

England a different beast under Hodgson

Ross Barkley impressed for England during their 2-2 draw against Ecuador

It's hard not to find your fingers hovering hesitantly over a keyboard when trying to assess England in a World Cup warm-up match.

The usual angle will always be "was anything learned by the manager" or "has anyone forced themselves into contention as a result?"

With England the usual reply is probably not -- leaving the average supporter, with past memories of broken metatarsals and healing groins, hoping the result isn't an unmitigated disaster, confidence isn't shattered and everyone emerges from the match without injury.

The 2-2 draw with Ecuador, then, sadly just reverted to type. It was a mixed display with hugely encouraging signs going forward, continued fears about the defence, the unwanted concern of an injury -- the excellent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain limped off nursing a knee that will require a scan --and to top it all, a red card for substitute Raheem Sterling.

The high temperature and humidity gave England the chance to experience what it will be like to play in Brazil while the ability of Ross Barkley and Oxlade-Chamberlain to attack with pace and skill may give England an individual edge they've not had for many years.

In defence, centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looked nervous and there seems little doubt that both the first and second choice partnership is probably the least convincing rear-guard in England's recent history. There may still be questions over Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka but on this showing there is very little else on offer.

The option of playing Wayne Rooney on the left also really didn't provide much in the way of an answer to where exactly the Manchester United striker is at his best, despite the fact he scored an albeit messy equaliser.

Elsewhere, the decision to play James Milner as a full-back just didn't work and although Luke Shaw did some good work going forward, he was found wanting for Ecuador's opening goal. Rickie Lambert continues to live the dream, though, and it would be a hard heart that didn't enjoy seeing the new Liverpool striker beaming after his superbly struck goal that put England 2-1 up. You get the feeling this man has to pinch himself constantly to believe that this is all real.

So what is Hodgson likely to concentrate on? Well, although there is no doubt that Michael Arroyo's equalising goal to level the score at 2-2 was struck with some venom, the manager will be keen to show how the midfielder should have been closed down to stop him getting in the shot that Ben Foster had no chance of reaching.

Wayne Rooney scored but the questions over his role in the team remain.

The coaching staff will certainly replay the challenge that saw Sterling sent off following an altercation with Antonio Valencia. The ball was won fairly by Sterling but his follow-through was strong.

Valencia overreacted, grabbing the Liverpool player by the throat in a move that brought players pushing and shoving on both sides. In the Premier League, the attempted throttling would have warranted a red but it's likely that Sterling would have just seen yellow. In the heat of tournament football in Brazil, such challenges will be punished and it's a lesson that will need to be learned.

For so often in the past, these matches have become dull, tepid affairs, settled by an odd goal as players take things easy as they attempt to acclimatise. There's a definite sense that England are a different beast under Hodgson and it showed in this game as players, particularly in attack, seemed keen to impress and not afraid to express themselves. For the first time in a while the national side have players that can genuinely frighten opposing defenders with pace and skill.

This World Cup may have come too early for Hodgson and his younger Lions but it's a good learning curve that may eventually lead somewhere better.

In the short term, the next step is a return to Miami's Sun Life Stadium for Saturday's warm-up match against Honduras. Then the real thing starts.