Monday, 25 June 2012

Resilient, brave, occasionally brilliant - but beaten

Euro 2012 quarter-final: England 0 - 0 Italy (Italy won 4-2 on penalties after extra-time)

In terms of the quality of football played over 120 minutes, England had lost. Long before the actual penalty defeat. It was as if the players felt they were competing a long-distance desert race, desperately attempting to drag their dead, cramping bodies over the extra-time finish line.

Andrea Pirlo, the puppet master, had England at his mercy and the viewing public in horrified awe. His ability to exert a wizard-like influence on the game from such a deep-sitting position proved to be a tactical nightmare and a spectacle scarcely seen. There is no denying his passing was on top form, both in terms of range and accuracy. But he has been performing at that ultimate level all year for Juventus, where he was in many critics’ eyes player of the season. Pirlo was just doing his thing. And we had no plan - or so it seemed - to nullify him.

The problem lay in the position Pirlo operates in; he plays in-between the defence and midfield where he aims to orchestrate the team's tempo and play passes in all directions. Our orthodox 4-4-2 did not naturally lend a player to picking him up, and the result was Pirlo had both plenty of space and time on the ball throughout the match. Free reign to the one player we could not afford to allow free reign. He also roamed to the sides, where his crossing was equally threatening.

Going into the quarter-final there was genuine reason for optimism. England breezed through their group, and with two exciting performances. We showed against Sweden an ability to raise our game, find goals when needed. Against Ukraine, we withstood a barrage from an inspired host nation and there was a genuine feeling of togetherness that has been a missing ingredient of past campaigns. The first half performance was all that was missing, and against Italy we got it. But then we lost it.

In the second half we reverted to the negative mindset we displayed against France. Like someone who had been sat in an uncomfortable chair for too long, we slumped from sitting high with attacking posture to sagging around our box as our goal-threat evaporated.

'Same old England' describes the style of our exit as once again we departed on penalties. But if that is how our tournament is remembered, it will do England an injustice. There were numerous, if disjointed, examples of the talents and capacity needed to form a winning side. We just never managed to display them all together at once.

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