• Monday, 25 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #16

    Well that was depressingly familiar.

    All tournament long, it's been a source of some pride that there had not been a goalless draw. That England were involved when one did was inevitable. They got themselves stuck as they attempted to deal with the conundrum that is Andrea Pirlo.

    We saw Holland fail to deal with Bastien Schweinsteiger earlier in the competition. Holland's deep-lying midfielders did not push out to close him down and he passed them to an early elimination. Pirlo, if anything, sits even deeper than Schweinsteiger and that left England with a problem. If they push out to close him down, they leave themselves wide open at the back. Stand off him and he'll boss things. The solution was to have the forwards dropping a bit deeper to pressure him. This had the consequence of compressing England's two banks of four into what became a back eight. With Wayne Rooney in particular dropping deep to track Pirlo, there was no outlet and on the rare occasions England won possession, it was given away almost immediately.

    And yet, for all they enjoyed the overwhelming majority of the ball, Italy couldn't fashion any really clear-cut chances. Their own lack of width combined with England's desire to funnel them into the middle - their one area of strength with Joleon Lescott and John Terry particularly good - saw them get tangled up too often and resorted to shots from 25 yards and more. One of those almost crept in, Daniele de Rossi with a wicked, swerving effort the hit the outside of the post. For all that Pirlo was in charge out there, Italy simply couldn't break an obdurate England down in the initial 90 minutes or the additional half hour.

    And so to penalties, the English bete-noire. When Ricardo Montolivo screwed Italy's second penalty wide of the goal, there was a glimmer of hope that this time might be different for England. Pirlo's delicious Panenka seemed to swing things back Italy's way and Ashley Young hit the bar and Ashley Cole fired a weak effort in that Gianluigi Buffon saved easily. England undone on penalties yet again.

    Cue the hand-wringing and the blaming of luck. It is not luck, nor lack thereof, that decides penalty shoot-outs. Blaming luck allows you to gloss over the skill deficit in this area. It seeks to minimise the failings. It is the last resting place of the scoundrel. Books have been written on penalties. You can practice all you like, but there has to be more to it than just taking pot-shots from 12 yards. There needs to be critical analysis of technique, an understanding of why a penalty is missed and why it is scored, a plan to take better penalties more often. It happens so often in tournament football that it has to become part of the process.

    So what did we learn? Well not a lot about England. A new manager in charge for only five weeks got results in distinctly unflashy style and took them as far as anyone else could and as far - beyond, even - anyone expected. His real job starts now, trying to put into place a system which can produce both players and, more critically, coaches, trying to find a voice, a style, so we never again see England absolutely stink the place out at a major championships. For Italy, for all they were massively superior, that lack of width was quite alarming and a harsh booking keeps Cristian Maggio - one player who can supply width - out of the semi-final. It's unlikely that Germany will be too afraid of what they saw here.

    Some days off now before the semi-finals. First, on Wednesday, it's Spain v Portugal with Italy v Germany to follow a day later. It's difficult to conclude other than the best four sides at the tournament have progressed through to this point.

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