Neymar shows usual signs of magic but is unable to dominate for Brazil

Barney Ronay at Wembley on 15 November 2017

With 23 minutes gone on a room-temperature night at Wembley Neymar did something beautiful, delicate and almost entirely at odds with the rest of this game.

Taking the ball with a knot of white shirts in front of him Neymar eased into a tiny green pocket of space and produced a ludicrous pass, raising his right foot at an oblique angle to generate backspin and flicking off his little toe a perfectly floated ball between two defenders for Gabriel Jesus to wriggle in behind and almost get a shot on goal.

A bit later Neymar nutmegged Jake Livermore near the centre circle, drawing wild, squealing cheers. But then it was a very funny nutmeg, so obviously telegraphed it might have been the punchline to a rambling Ronnie Corbett armchair monologue.

As Brazil lost the ball Neymar tracked back and took possession from Marcus Rashford by his own goal line, slid past Kyle Walker with no discernible shift of feet then covered 60 yards like a drop of rain running down a window. For all the money, the baggage, the celebrity persona, this is a genuinely effortless footballer.

Not that England were at any stage beguiled, or shaken from their furiously dogged defensive shape on a night when the most expensive footballer in the world was only ever allowed to decorate rather than dominate.

But then, this is how Southgate’s England have begun to define themselves, a team of hair-shirt defensive diligence, reflecting the manager’s own restrained, meticulous, oddly chastened persona. Across the past six hours and four matches home and away, the combined score reads 2-0 to England. One of those goals was a penalty.

When the Football Association booked its November “prestige friendlies”, announced with great blaring pizzazz by the Wembley PA even as England sealed World Cup qualification, this probably wasn’t quite what they had in mind. England managed three shots on target across these two matches.

Throughout, they have played to avoid defeat first, never quite living up to the promise made so often during qualification that against better teams England would be able to break, to spring forward, to find space in behind.

The main focus of concern will be on an unprecedentedly joyless central midfield. Southgate continued with the Dier-Livermore fulcrum, a midfield duo who would undoubtedly be extremely useful moving furniture out of a van or manoeuvring a piano up a flight of stairs, but who lack a little when it comes to guile and delicacy of touch.

In front of them Ruben Loftus-Cheek was again delegated all creative midfield duties. England’s manager is focused. But he is unlikely ever to be confused with a cavalier.

On the reverse side of this, England would surely have lost had they tried to go toe-to-toe with more nimble, more fluent opponents. They needed that protection. In the opening half-hour Brazil were good, stretching England right across their own stellar front line.

England held their own, never at any stage fell prey to the Neymar show, were never tempted to sit back and admire. In the second minute Loftus-Cheek pressed up so aggressively against Neymar’s back as he wiggled and shimmied in search of space they seemed to be Charlestoning together 30 yards back towards his own goal. England gave no quarter here or against Germany. They are undoubtedly a team. Just not, perhaps, a particularly good one yet.

Having charmed for 30 minutes, producing in the process the only memories that are likely to linger of a so-so game, Neymar faded to the edge of things. For a while in the second half he fell over a bit. Then he faded again. Then he fell over a few times more, wisely taking the chance to rest on the lush turf with a full league and European programme coming up.

The frustration will be that at times England showed they do have some flair of their own. For Rashford this was a fine occasion playing opposite Neymar, on whom he has modelled parts of his game. He played well, showing his own confidence on the ball, not afraid to dribble and twist and take on his man.

It is an unhelpful comparison in many ways: Neymar is a unique player, with a way of moving the ball and shifting his balance that often eludes the naked eye, gliding about like a lovely little lightweight skill-robot made out of graphite and aluminium and icing sugar. But Rashford has his own qualities, too, and will learn from games like these.

England do have craft and flair in this group. The question remains, will they be allowed to show it?

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