England's hopes rest on Roy Hodgson replacing Ferdinand and Terry

After all the issues surrounding England's previous shortcomings, the lack of finesse in Euro 2012 and the recurring habit of not taking enough care of the ball, the focus for Roy Hodgson has suddenly switched to a new "problem".

It is a problem, he is willing to admit, that he is not yet sure how to fix and it is this: where is the next great centre-half partnership coming from?

England's opponents at Wembley on Wednesday were not a classic Brazil side but it was still a performance that demonstrated Hodgson has an accomplished goalkeeper, good options in both full-back positions and a new central midfield partnership that is distinguished enough to mean a player of Frank Lampard's refinement cannot get in the team. The left-wing spot, a familiar problem of old, may still be a concern. Hodgson, one suspects, may not be finished just yet with the 4-4-2 system that can look so outmoded these days and the choice of category A strikers behind Wayne Rooney is fairly limited.

Yet it is the centre-back positions, for so long the strength of England teams, that may leave the manager waking at night now John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are off the scene and nobody has yet stepped forward to make the position their own.

Hodgson himself admits he is still in the process of making up his mind. In the seven games since Euro 2012 he has changed the centre-back partnership every time. There have been only two occasions, against Ukraine and Poland, when he has used the same pairing, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott. Against Italy, it was Gary Cahill and Jagielka. Terry's last game was alongside Lescott in Moldova. For San Marino, it was Jagielka and Cahill. Steven Caulker was given his chance in Sweden, with Ryan Shawcross getting his first cap as a substitute, and then it was Chris Smalling's turn against Brazil. Add in Phil Jones, and Smalling becomes the eighth centre-half Hodgson has used in nine months in the job. By his own admission, the manager is still trying to find the solution. "For years and years England have had a centre-back pairing of two very good players that everyone could be really satisfied with," Hodgson said. "For various reasons, we've moved on from that. Now we have to try to solve the problem."

The first place to start is by dismissing any idea of Ferdinand being recalled. "I'm not going to talk about him," Hodgson said very matter-of-factly. "We've just beaten Brazil for the first time in God knows how many years and I'm not prepared to talk about people who aren't in the squad."

Point made. Yet Hodgson did later acknowledge that "very possibly" it was a legitimate issue when his complaints about not taking enough care of the ball in defence have become a looped theme after recent Wembley matches.

There are two other reasons why it keeps being brought back up. First, there is surely a duty for England managers to select the best players and, with the exception of one bad game against Tottenham Hotspur in September, Ferdinand is having a distinguished season for Manchester United, where Smalling and Jones are his understudies. Second, one of the reasons Hodgson gave for leaving Ferdinand out of Euro 2012 was that it would have been unfair to include someone of his reputation and experience if he were not going to be a mandatory first-team pick. Yet is that not exactly what is happening with Frank Lampard now Jack Wilshere has taken over alongside Steven Gerrard?

But forget Ferdinand. Hodgson's story will probably always have a few holes but it is futile to think he will change his mind. The more relevant issue now is establishing the best available partnership and shaping a team, preferably in the 4-2-3-1 formation we saw against Brazil, whereby the central midfielders are disciplined enough not to stray too far away from their defensive duties.

Hodgson was "pleased" with how Cahill and Smalling had coped overall against Ronaldinho, Neymar and Brazil's other attackers. "We're not talking lower league," he pointed out. "We're talking international football, England against Brazil, and some of the so-called very best players in the world. So I think whoever you would play at centre-back would have problems against that quality of opposition."

Yet this felt a little like Hodgson trying to redress the balance, bearing in mind his immediate observations after the match were that his central defenders had put the team through a "mad spell" and simply could not expect to get away with it. Fred, the Brazilian substitute, emphatically punished Cahill for losing the ball inside his own half but the most alarming aspect, perhaps, was the unsettling effects of the goal. Within a few minutes Smalling's panicky back-pass forced Joe Hart to hack the ball clear and it bounced off Cahill into Fred's path. This time the Brazilian striker with the old-fashioned English name curled a shot against the crossbar.

"Taking the positives, I thought I played really well but the nature of my position is it means you can play well for 89 minutes then make a mistake against sides like this and get punished," Cahill said. "It spoilt the night a little bit for me. It was out of character. It was just a bad decision but that's something I need to learn from."

The issue for Hodgson is a familiar one. If everyone is fit at United, Smalling tends to be behind Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, leaving him and Jones competing for the right to be fourth choice. Lescott was pretty much an automatic first-team player for Manchester City last season but at times in this campaign has slipped to fourth in Roberto Mancini's thinking. Cahill has to compete with Terry, David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic for a starting place at Chelsea whereas Caulker has lost his at Spurs. Jagielka is the only centre-half firmly in Hodgson's thinking who is pretty much guaranteed to start for his club every week. That, however, is at Everton, where the downside is there is no European football.

Cahill can at least console himself that he has started three of the past four internationals but, equally, it is fair to say Hodgson still wishes Terry were available. Even if he had not ruled himself out, however, the Chelsea captain is at a point in his professional life when there would have to be serious doubts about whether, with his history of injuries, he would be capable of playing in the World Cup. One member of England's backroom staff considered it a "miracle" he was even able to take part in Euro 2012, never mind playing with such distinction. For Hodgson, it is filling the void that is now proving the difficult part.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor, for The Guardian on Thursday 7th February 2013 22.30 Europe/London

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