Neil Humphreys: How England can avoid disaster at World Cup 2018
Five lessons to help England evolve from perennial underachievers to genuine contenders
Gareth Southgate's Lions went toe-to-toe with Germany and Brazil, and didn't do very much.
But they didn't lose either. Two creditable 0-0 draws are cause for a little hope.
Having sat through 180 minutes of goalless football, our columnist looks at how England can avoid another World Cup farce.
GOMEZ GONNA BE A STAR
Joe Gomez left Wembley with £198 million (S$354m) in his back pocket.
The shy lad from Liverpool gave Neymar another reason to weep. The Brazilian barely got a kick.
Forget Gomez's age and lack of first-team experience. The 20-year-old handled Neymar and clubmate Philippe Coutinho like an old pro. He's already defending at the football summit. There's no one better than Neymar waiting for him at the World Cup.
In previous tournaments, England always tried to pull one out of the hat.
At Italia '90, Gazza-mania was born. In 1998, Michael Owen bypassed half of Argentina on his path to stardom. This time round, Gomez promises to light the Russian skies.
Assured in possession, he promises something that was once a given in an England line-up but evaporated at recent tournaments: defensive solidity.
Gomez even offers a solution for Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Stick the kid among those skittish centre backs and the Reds' season could be salvaged.
TWO IS COMPANY, THREE IS COLOSSAL
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte made three centre backs popular in English football, but the formation has really taken hold with the national side.
With Gomez born to be an international defender and Leicester City's Harry Maguire equally competent, Manchester City's John Stones can finally shine on centre stage.
For too long, he wanted to play from the back with teammates who didn't play from the back. But at club level, City manager Pep Guardiola has surrounded Stones with like-minded individuals who press high. Southgate is now reaping the rewards.
Stones, 23, Maguire, 24, and Gomez, 20 are bright, positive centre backs, benefitting from the evolving, surging tactics of the English Premier League (thanks entirely to foreign managers, but let's not split hairs).
Southgate's back three can drop to a back five - as they did against both Brazil and Germany. Against narrower teams, however, England's fullbacks can exploit the space ahead of them, knowing that they have a reliable back three protecting them.
Southgate's defensive shape was arguably born at Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, but it could be made in Russia.
LIONS CAN'T LOSE THEIR MINDS
Brazil coach Tite hailed England's tactical discipline.
"They were like ice, really cold, they never lost their minds," he said, sincerely.
It's a key point.
Since taking over from Dunga, Tite's Brazilians have dominated South American qualifying, scoring goals for fun. But Joe Hart was seldom tested.
In fact, England have now played two friendlies against nations occupying the top-two positions in the Fifa rankings and not conceded a goal.
Southgate might look like a chartered accountant, but he's also got England playing like one, focusing on the smallest percentages, the fine margins.
Barely 18 months since the Iceland fiasco, the Lions appear disciplined and drilled in a fashion that looks distinctly un-English.
Southgate's boys are by no means the most talented England squad heading to a World Cup, but they might be among the most organised.
STOP WATER CARRYING, START ATTACKING
England's injuries were keenly felt in central midfield.
There was plenty of bite, but not much that could be called balletic. Jake Livermore and Eric Dier chomped away at Brazilian ankles and chopped up samba rhythms. As reliable water carriers, they put out fires. As fire starters, however, they were less impressive.
Casemiro retained possession in a way that was beyond his opponents. Indeed, England's perennial problem remains. They still can't keep the ball.
Dele Alli and Adam Lallana are intelligent craftsmen, but they occupy wider roles for both club and country.
Ironically, the one central midfielder capable of controlling possession still struggles with form and fitness.
Should Jack Wilshere convince himself that he really is blessed with the ability to be a world-beater, then there's still room for him on the plane to Russia.
PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE PENALTIES
Don't mock Southgate's daft plan.
He should try anything to get that monkey off any England manager's back. He wants to put his players through a mock penalty shoot-out in front of a Wembley crowd before they head off to the World Cup.
He should. He must.
England's shoot-out record stands at seven failures out of eight attempts; a wretched statistic.
There are at least four friendlies scheduled before the World Cup. Pick one. Pick five penalty-takers and hope for the best. Do something. Anything.
Otherwise, all of the above won't matter if England can't fix their penalty jinx.
Their World Cup will once again end in more tears than a Neymar press conference.
Southgate pleased with young defence
Gareth Southgate expressed pride in England's young defence as his side drew 0-0 with Brazil in a friendly yesterday morning (Singapore time), four days after another stalemate against world champions Germany.
Even more satisfying for manager Southgate was the fact that injuries and withdrawals meant he was without several first-choice players for the double-header against the world's two top-ranked teams.
Yesterday, he fielded a three-man defence with Manchester City's 23-year-old John Stones flanked by Liverpool's 20-year-old Joe Gomez and Leicester City's Harry Maguire, 24.
Brazil's attacking options included Neymar, the world's most expensive player, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, yet the visitors were kept safely at arm's length.
"I'm more proud tonight than I was against Germany," Southgate said after England kept a clean sheet against Brazil for the first time in their last 11 meetings.
"We have found so many positives because it won't get much tougher than tonight. They will gain huge confidence.
"I thought they all did very well. We know about Joe's athleticism, but I thought his decision-making and calmness in dealing with high quality movement were fantastic.
"Stones showed the defensive attributes tonight. He was mature and controlled the line, and was calm in possession.
"And Harry, he was a real plus. He started a little anxiously, but he grew in confidence.
"We limited both Brazil and Germany to very few clear-cut chances. When you put young players in, you could get beaten by four and then you are questioning the decision.
"But they really stepped up in the two matches." - REUTERS