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England hold Brazil but Neymar’s rare gifts offer Southgate a reality check

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Daniel Taylor at Wembley
Neymar prepares to control the ball as England’s Ryan Bertrand attempts to close the Brazilian down. © Getty Images Neymar prepares to control the ball as England’s Ryan Bertrand attempts to close the Brazilian down.

The funny thing is that until last week it had been seven years since England’s last goalless draw at Wembley, going all the way back to a Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro when Fabio Capello was in charge. They have now had two in the space of four days but that is not necessarily such a bad thing when the opposition both times have been the highest-placed teams in Fifa’s world rankings.

Gareth Southgate can certainly be encouraged by successive clean sheets against, first, Germany and now a Brazil side that thinks of itself as football royalty and will also go to the World Cup with realistic ambitions of winning the trophy. England have managed two creditable results while playing experimental sides. Joe Gomez was named as the man of the match for this one and Dominic Solanke, a second-half substitute, will certainly remember the night he won his first cap. Solanke came on with Tammy Abraham after 75 minutes, meaning Southgate has given half a dozen players their England debuts over the course of these two fixtures.

Southgate can certainly be encouraged by successive clean sheets against, first, Germany and now Brazil © Provided by PA Southgate can certainly be encouraged by successive clean sheets against, first, Germany and now Brazil How many of those players will still be involved when England reconvene in March, with fixtures arranged against Holland and Italy, remains to be seen but Southgate is entitled to think it has been a useful exercise, particularly bearing in mind the nature of the Seleçao line-up.

Unlike Germany’s policy of experimentation last Friday, this was the strongest team available to Tite, the Brazilian coach. For long, difficult spells England were reminded why it will be so imperative to keep the ball against the best teams in the World Cup, namely because once it is given away it can be a long time before it comes back. That in itself made this a rarity at Wembley: an England game where the opposition dominated possession, with the more refined touches and the swagger of a side that knows they are something special.

Southgate was right when he said it made sense to invite Brazil to Wembley, taking into account the kind of challenges his team might encounter in Russia next summer, but it did also show the imbalance of talent that explains why England will not be among the top seeds when the draw takes place on 1 December.

England never moved the ball so quickly or with the same kind of fluidity © Provided by PA England never moved the ball so quickly or with the same kind of fluidity The pass Neymar nonchalantly curled into Gabriel Jesus midway through the first half was just one example. Neymar does not often use his left foot but, on this evidence, maybe he should more often. This was clipped with the outside of his boot to apply just the right amount of bend and spin. Jesus was marginally offside but that was the kind of moment that simply does not happen when England are chugging through humdrum victories against easy fodder in qualifying matches.

Neymar’s next attempt to release Jesus was another beauty. His shooting could be wild at times and the half-time announcer even had the temerity to poke fun at one of the misses, with the shot replayed on the large screens. Just a bit of fun, perhaps, but the truth was Neymar was operating at a much higher level than any of his opponents, as demonstrated by his exquisitely delivered nutmeg on the unfortunate Jake Livermore. It is not often Wembley has the chance to see one of the world’s category-A footballers in action and the fans here should have enjoyed watching a player with these kind of uncommon gifts. Neymar is a treat, and should be cherished for what he does.

England never moved the ball so quickly or with the same kind of fluidity and were guilty sometimes of rushing passes. Ruben Loftus-Cheek had a fine game against Germany but his second cap ended in the 35th minute because of an injury. Jesse Lingard took his place but it was a pity that England did not have Harry Kane or Dele Alli to see how they would have done with their best attack in place.

Marcus Rashford did, however, show in flashes why he will always back himself to trouble even the most accomplished teams, including one little pirouette and improvisational drag-back to take him away from Marcelo, João Miranda and Casemiro early in the second half. Rashford played with great confidence and also had England’s most promising moment of the first half, cutting inside from the left before firing in a 25-yard shot that Alisson saved.

The disappointing part was the lack of penalty-box activity but this was not a night, unlike the previous two England games at this stadium, when the crowd spent large parts of the match trying to think of new ways to make their own entertainment. There were only a few paper planes arrowing on to the pitch and the Mexican wave did not last long. Even with a lack of penetrative edge and Philippe Coutinho having a below-par night, there was plenty to admire from the Brazilians.

The closest they came to winning the match came when Eric Dier lost the ball in midfield and the substitute Fernandinho strode forward before striking a long-range shot that skimmed off the outside of the post. Ultimately, though, it was another stalemate and England, without Kane, need to find a scoring touch. Jamie Vardy had a difficult night and when Solanke had his chance to be a hero in the final exchanges his touch was poor and the goalkeeper, Alisson, spared Brazil an undeserved defeat.

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