The mission was clear: mark the living daylights out of Andrea Pirlo. It was June 2014 and the countdown to that summer’s World Cup in Brazil was well and truly underway. Breaking down England’s opener against Italy, Pirlo was all the pundits could talk about.
“Give him time and he will destroy you,”
Paul Scholes warned.
The very real fear surrounding what the Italian midfield conductor would do to the English national team at that tournament was entirely rational – just two years previously, he had almost single-handedly eliminated them from Euro 2012 with one of the finest performances of his career.
Going into that European Championship, Pirlo had attained veteran status. He was 33 years old and, just one year prior, Milan had felt so confident about his influence waning that they allowed him to join Juventus on a free transfer. So, when England drew Italy in the quarter-finals, most of the attention was understandably directed towards Mario Balotelli, who was playing for Manchester City at the time.
Some did predict Pirlo’s brilliance, sort of. In his tournament preview for World Soccer, Paddy Agnew wrote that, with Juventus, the playmaker had
“[lived] up to his reputation as one of the great midfield schemers in the modern game.”
Alan Hansen also knew how crucial stopping Pirlo would be, though he felt stopping Pirlo was absolutely possible, writing:
“There are areas of weakness in Pirlo’s game that England can exploit.”
The match would take place in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium at night. It was Euro 2012’s last quarter-final – the winner would take on Germany in the semis. Both teams were undefeated going in and had a right to be confident: in the group stages, England had drawn with a talented French side, while Italy had drawn with reigning world champions Spain.
England started well, forcing Gianluigi Buffon into a stunning reflex save from close range. Things looked good defensively, too. Roy Hodgson set his side up in a zonal 4-4-2, with Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney instructed to disrupt Italy’s build-up by staying close to or forming cover shadows on Pirlo – or haranguing him whenever he did get on the ball. But it didn’t take long for Pirlo to find freedom.
Constantly probing for space between the lines, he acted as Italy’s quarterback, pinging long balls over the top. Balotelli sprung England’s offside trap several times having been located by a Pirlo pass, but he was unable to take advantage. Still, the sight of this move being successfully deployed with such consistency only added to the sense of English unease. Surely, eventually, one of those precise balls would lead to a goal.
When he wasn’t searching for a striker, Pirlo was taking the piss. At one point in the first half, he lofted the ball over Rooney’s head for the sheer hell of it. It was basically nothing more than a short sideways pass to Daniele De Rossi, though the deliberate complication of its execution was perhaps a ploy by Pirlo to get the opposition to back off. If the pass could have spoken, it would have rasped:
“Don’t try me, I will humiliate you.”
Gradually, Pirlo asserted himself on the game. No; gradually, Pirlo became the game. He was receiving from the defenders in different areas – sometimes to the side, sometimes centrally – and breaking the lines with penetrative through balls. He was switching play from flank to flank, always utilising the un-marked advancing Italian full-back on the other side of the pitch. He appeared to be operating in some sort of vacuum: time stood still when he was in possession.
By the second half the match had ceased to exist; this was a one-man show. Along with the no-look crosses and adventurous one-twos, there were subtle, almost undetectable movements. Pirlo was using his lack of pace to his advantage. He looked, at best, like a dishevelled former athlete, never going beyond a moderate jog. But he utterly dynamic in spite of his apparent lack of urgency. And the more he was pressed, the more insouciant he became.
A fake drag-back enabled him to escape the attention of Scott Parker. Then, faced with Andy Carroll’s lumbering presence, Pirlo used his body to deceive and manoeuvre forward. At one point he ran in a circle in England’s half, playfully ambling past forlorn opponents. This was a lesson in press resistance.
The match finished 0-0, but it wasn’t one of those ‘good’ 0-0s. This was as one-sided a draw as you are likely to see. The resultant penalty shootout offered Pirlo one last chance to shine. England led 2-1 as he stepped up to take Italy’s third spot-kick. Joe Hart grimaced at him, overwhelmed by youthful vigour. Pirlo glanced back without expression, full of self-awareness. “As I began my run-up, I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do,” he later wrote in his autobiography. His chipped penalty was so slow that he nearly caught up with it as it reached the net. His last act turned the shootout around.
England missed their next two penalties, and Hart failed to stop Italy’s next two. Italy progressed to face Germany. Pirlo was roundly applauded as the orchestrator of the win, and the statistics backed this up. According to Opta, his 131 passes that evening was more, by far than any other player on the pitch. For context, he made more passes than England’s top three passers combined.
It’s worth noting that the system laid the foundations for this superb performance. Cesare Prandelli packed his Italian midfield to try and create a central overload, and Pirlo was often the free man that benefitted from this. That the player maximised every afforded inch was all down to him, though.
English football’s soul-searching began immediately post-match. Italy had enjoyed 64 percent of possession on the night, which concerned many analysts. It was posited that this was the root of England’s exit. In his assessment, Hansen wrote that:
“At an international level, possession is king. England needs somebody with the technical ability of Pirlo.”
That was the legacy of this game and this individual display. This was more than a pass, or a movement, or a look, or a penalty; this was about footballing ideals. Pirlo made a nation question itself.
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Also published on Medium.