Monday, 25 June 2012

A Pirlo Masterclass

Last night the world was reintroduced to the magic of one Andrea Pirlo. Although highlighted prior to the game as the player to control the Italian attack, few expected him to control the game in quite the manner he managed, certainly not to the point where he numbered more passes than the top four players of England combined.

A number of statistics make startling reading. It is often said that the tiki-taka football that Barcelona employ is so effective by tiring out the opposition by forcing them to chase the ball for 70% of the game. Yet, despite England chasing Italian shadows for 67% of the game, Pirlo in fact covered a greater distance than any England player.

Other stats offer even more cause for discomfort. Joe Hart's 85 touches of the ball during the 120 minutes were only 9 short of Casillas' 94 touches all competition. Perhaps an even more damning statistic concerning England approach is that their most successful passing combination was between Hart and the proverbial 'big target man' of Andy Carroll. Considering Rooney's and Carroll's abilities in ball retention may also go some way to explaining their average 39% possession across all four games- the lowest they have experience in competition since 1980.

Still, as hapless as England were, the plaudits must be given to an impressive Italian display and a sumptuous performance of man only one year older than Gerrard. Even after running a greater distance than the entire shattered England side, he found composure to score one of the most audacious and potentially morale shattering penalties of recent times. Although it is often argued by pundits that 'any penalty that is scored is a good one', his take on the Panenka chip in a bid to make a statement (as later professed to the media) against England was an outrageously excellent penalty. Surely a penalty, so brazen in its expression of composure, finesse and confidence is to be celebrated. Although his success, cannot be totally clear; Ashley Young missed the subsequent spot-kick and suddenly Italy were back in control.

As always, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and class and impersonation. Last night Pirlo showed us both class and confidence, and even Balotelli managed to keep his frustration within himself. On the other hand, those who might wish to see how a Panenka penalty is not accomplished, should look not further than Peter Crouch's failed attempt vs Jamaica in 2007.

In the end it was a win for football played with elegance, poise and with respect to the best elements of the game. In the year that Chelsea defended their way to a Champions League title it was likely the best result for football as a whole that a team engaged with more concern to anti-football defensive football were not again successful in the manner that Chelsea, or perhaps Greece in the past were. Those who wish to assert England as more than a defensive, tackling side should note that they made more tackles and blocked more shots than any other team in the tournament. Furthermore England's total shots in four games is also one fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo's total in Portugal's 30 minutes less of football.

Unlike other tournaments where England have left early found wanting, last night's performance was a stubborn yet almost effective display. Unlike the hapless performances in South Africa, it could well be argued that England played as well as their ability allowed. On the basis of yet another quarter-final exit it may simply be that the last 8 is England's correct position in international football. Should England, and indeed the other home nations wish to succeed and progress further, they should take note of the successful teams and players of the continent. Until we realise that the answer isn't to stick the big man up front, the international wilderness will become all the more familiar.

(Sources: Opta Stats and The Guardian)

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