Short article written after the England-Italy game.
In his article for the Daily Mail, chief sports writer Martin Samuels suggests that “unless England can unearth someone as good as Andrea Pirlo, they must prepare for more disappointment in the future.”
As Italy knocked out England on penalties yesterday following a goalless 120 minutes, Juventus’s 33 year old playmaker Andrea Pirlo pulled the strings for the Azzuri as they dominated England and were unlucky not to score in normal time. Italy played 4-3-1-2 against England’s flat 4-4-2 and Italy’s extra man in the centre of midfield made a significant contribution to their control of the game. Now, whilst the mantra “it’s not how much possession you have, it’s what you do with it” is very true, there were two particularly telling statistics of how England’s gameplan was undone.
The possession figures saw Italy with 63% of the ball to England’s 37%, but possibly more damning for England was that the 3 Lions most frequent pass combination was Joe Hart to Andy Carroll. It is all well and good suggesting ‘England need to retain possession more’ but this is too vague to really have any impact; it is first necessary to ask in what areas do we needlessly give the ball away.
The most obvious singular problem seems to be patience on the ball. England do not tend to like to pass sideways or backwards too often and prefer to play passes that attempt to generate forward momentum. This helps explain Joe Hart frequently lumping it towards Andy Carroll (and Welbeck) which whilst Carroll dealt with the barrage of long balls admirably, England failed to retain possession from the majority of his flick-ons and knockdowns. A second notable lack of patience comes when England do successfully get the balls out to the wide players.
Given any half chance to deliver a ball into the box, England tend to do so whether it is Rooney alone in the area with two centre backs or not, whereas other teams may be content to hold on to the ball and try and work a clearer opening, something Spain are renowned for and something Italy did time and again last night. Another example was counter-attacking; often when England managed to break down an Italian attack, the ball would fall for one of the England players around the edge of their own box who without fail would try and play a Hollywood pass over the top of the Italian defence when again patience could have possibly prevailed to try and prevent England being penned in their own half.
While there is no doubt England’s Steven Gerrard is a sublime passer of a football but he is another who lacks patience on the ball and failed to have his desired impact on yesterday’s match. Italy on the other hand made 815 passes to England’s 320 according to UEFA stats, of which Andrea Pirlo made 114 alone. What is so graceful about the way Pirlo plays the game, and emphasizes my point regarding patience, is that he barely seems to break out of a jog when doing so. Often he gets free by waiting rather than busting a gut and has already looked up to see where his teammates are before he has received the ball. So far the general consensus in the English Press seems to conform to Samuels’ “England need to unearth a Pirlo”, and that we need a Germany-style revolution of grassroots football; both of which strike me as reactionary exaggerations.
This ‘revolution’ has already taken small steps, with the FA passing a decree which means under-12’s matches will be played on smaller pitches and be played with less players on each team, hopefully enabling players more touches on the ball to eventually enhance technique. Whilst such measures are no doubt admirable, is ‘grassroots revolution’ the answer to ‘unearthing a Pirlo’? Are we really so bereft of players capable of playing a simple passing game in that style? The answer, is no.
Whilst not as good as Pirlo, we have players who can play a simple passing game; we just couldn’t/didn’t take any of them. Unfortunately our two most promising youngsters who are capable of playing this style of football, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley were both injured for this tournament, but are good passers capable of keeping possession. However how many of those who are now crying out for players capable of keeping possession called out for the inclusion of Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick in the squad?, If not them then perhaps Leon Britten of Swansea? A small minority yes, but many who complain about our lack of passing players wouldn’t have taken any either, believing our other players to be stronger. Personally I do not believe the inclusion of these players would have necessarily meant that England progressed yesterday, in fact far from it.
The current squad was only really capable of reaching the quarters, and they did so successfully, and should not be lambasted as such. However what I don’t agree with is the reaction which calls for radical change which will allow us to play like Spain, or Germany or Italy. This attitude strikes an unfair opposition between typical England physicality and willingness to ‘get stuck in’ with European possession based football. These are not incompatible opposites and rather than choosing between one and the other, we should attempt to find a healthy balance between the two. Such a revolution in which we attempt to emulate other countries successes by copying their youth development systems wholesale would likely result in a poor copy of the original, think Swansea to Barcelona.
To progress in a more realistic fashion we need to begin by attempting to incorporate elements of other nations’ style to complement the positive aspects of our own. Finally, hopefully now that the disappointment has settled, you can watch Pirlo's penalty again because it's so good it's not even funny.