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With the World Cup in full swing now, the action shifted to the aptly labelled Group D, the Group of Death. This group, apart from containing minnows Costa Rica who went on to shock Uruguay, also had two giants of world football, England and Italy. These two titans locked horns in the middle of the Amazon Forest in a crunch World Cup tie to try and take advantage of Uruguay’s slip up.
England: Hart; Johnson; Cahill; Jagielka; Baines; Gerrard; Henderson (Wilshire, 73); Rooney; Sterling; Welbeck (Barkley, 61); Sturridge (Lallana, 80).
Italy: Sirigu; Darmian; Paletta; Barzagli; Chiellini; Pirlo; De Rossi; Verratti (Motta, 57); Marchisio; Candreva (Parolo, 79); Balotelli (Immobile, 73).
Scorers: Italy (Marchisio 35, Balotelli, 50)- England (Sturridge, 37)
With a lot of central midfielders initially named in the line up, many were not very clear about how Italy would line up. When they emerged on the pitch though, they were in a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation. Pirlo, Verratti, and De Rossi were deeper, as Marchisio and Candreva played higher up the pitch to support the lone striker Mario Balotelli. This meant that the midfield and forward line offered no natural width and it was up to the 2 full backs to get forward and stretch the England back line. Both Chiellini and Darmian did very well getting forward, well in advance of the midfielders at times.
Darmian of course, was far more comfortable doing this as this is the position he usually plays in, but for Chiellini, it was a slightly uncomfortable experience. As a result, italy tried to focus their attacks down the right hand side. Darmian sprinting forward from his position at the back wasn’t an uncommon sight in the first half. The right back made some good combinations with Candreva, and the duo kept the England defenders busy with crosses. Candreva alone attempted 5 crosses in the first half. Eventually, this paid off, as a good run down the right, allowed Candreva to cross and find Balotelli for the 2nd Italian goal, that went on to win the game for Italy.
Many expected Pirlo to play in the holding role prior to the beginning of the game, but the roles were exchanged, and Danielle De Rossi sat in front of the defence. Pirlo instead adopted something closer to a free role to avoid the marking of players like Welbeck and Sterling.
This meant that Pirlo was a sort of floating playmaker, going all over the pitch and playing passes to those around him and in front of him. Due to the fact that he was floating all across the field, as opposed to staying in a particular area of the field, England found it very difficult to mark him and tie him down. He completed an astonishing 95% of his passes even in such an advanced position. Another aspect that he controlled very well was the tempo. What was noticeable was how masterful Italy were when changing tempo and switching gears when they got close to the England penalty area. A lot of this happened due to Pirlo playing a quicker first pass. 117 touches over the 90 minutes mean that he got more touches than anyone else on the pitch, and the effect is there to see in the result. Credit should go to Danielle De Rossi as well. The Roma midfielder did a tremendous job protecting the back 4, and keeping the ball moving over to the creative players like Pirlo and Verratti.
There was a lot of confusion before the beginning of the game with respect to who would play where. Many people felt that it would be Sterling behind Sturridge, and others felt that it would be Rooney. In practice, Rooney tended to get closer to Daniel Sturridge when England were on the ball, while Sterling had a free role of sorts. Off the ball, Rooney went to the left to try and protect the left back, and Sterling played in the middle. Unfortunately for England, this didn’t really work out smoothly in the transitions, and it often left Leighton Baines open to attack. This allowed Darmian to overlap down the right hand side, and it also freed Candreva to drift in from the right had side. By doing so he added another man in the middle part of the field, and allowed Italy to retain possession in the final third that much better. The fact that he made the cross for the winning goal aside, the lack of cohesion while transitioning into defense also allowed Italy the chance to create space and dominate possession.
As you can see in the image above, a lot of the passes completed in the final third are on the right hand side.This was a position where Baines needed a bit of protection, but England found it hard to do that.
England were unable to expose any such defensive chinks, and struggled to dominate possession. While they had the ball many times, they didn’t really hold it for extended spells for too many times. This meant that they never really put the Italian defenders under a concerted spell of pressure, or made them run about the pitch for a continuous period of time. Italy had 56% possession through the game, but importantly, they had a 93% completion rate as opposed to 90% from England.
While the Italians built their attacking moves patiently, and upped the tempo only when they found an opening, England looked to hit their opponents with pace. Players like Welbeck, Sterling, and Rooney did very well do find spaces between the lines of the Italina midfielders. While De Rossi was quite efficient doing his job in front of the centre backs, it was the wide areas that he couldn’t really affect effectively. This worked very well for England, as Italy looked to get into their shape and stay organised with numbers at the back. It was only when England got pacy players on the ball, and moved it quickly that Italy struggled. The chances that England created all came as a result of some good quick passing in the wide areas. When the likes of Sterling looked to run at the Italian defence, they didn’t really succeed too often.
In the second half, after Italy got the lead, England got a bit desperate, and undid a lot of the good work of the first half by reverting to character. The front 4 tended to drift away from the midfielders, and the gap between the back line and the strikers kept getting wider. This cannot be a good situation, and it forced them to play a more direct kind of football. England needed to keep their cool, and continue playing the way they were, because it was causing Italy a lot of trouble.
This wasn’t an easy choice to make, with some terrific performances from the likes of Sterling, Darmian, and Pirlo, but in the end, it would probably be fair to give this award to Pirlo. The 35 year old played very well through the game, helping Italy keep the ball, and dictating tempo magnificently. He even hit the cross bar right at the end, and his dummy for Marchisio’s goal was just as beautigul as any of his passes through the game. The fact that he has 95% completion from midfield is simply incredible. He was the key to Italy controlling the game in the way they did.
Both sides will take positives from this match. Italy managed to control the game, especially when they had the ball, and Pirlo’s form will encourage Prandelli and co. England put in a fair performance, and have every reason to be optimistic, especially after the way Uruguay lost to Costa Rica. The likes of Sterling and Sturridge also put in convincing performances, and should do better in the coming games.