Euro 2012 Quarterfinal Preview, England vs. Italy: Anything But Penalty Kicks Please

Not today man.

Zack Goldman says goodbye to the quarters.

Good morning!  Today we’ve got our last quarterfinal, England versus Italy.

Both teams traveled to Euro 2012 with somewhat muted expectations, having underachieved at the last World Cup and feeling less than confident about their current squads.

Both federations dealt with a fair bit of of internal turmoil in the run-up to the tournament—Italy’s woes regarding yet another match fixing scandal (this leading me to believe that putting a Medieval Times in Italy might be the most fun thing ever), while England’s primarily stemmed from its well-publicized race issues that led to a managerial vacancy and a squad divided.

Let’s check out five things to focus on.

Whither Italy’s squad circle?

ONE.  What formation will Italy come out with?

We all know Roy Hodgson will deploy his typical 4-4-1-1.  So far, his approach has drawn praise from all corners—and rightfully so—as the English have embraced ‘winning ugly’.  It should be mentioned, however, that they could easily have lost all three group stage matches.  But, they didn’t.  And that, my friends, is precisely the point.

Italy’s shape will be much more difficult to predict.  With Giorgio Chiellini out with a thigh injury, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has to ask himself whether he is willing to revert to the 3-5-2 formation that he deployed in his team’s first two matches in Poland.

Against Ireland, Prandelli both rotated his squad and altered his formation, coming out with a 4-3-1-2.  He preferred Antonio Di Natale to Mario Balotelli, and inserted Federico Balzaretti, Ignazio Abate, and Andrea Barzagli on the backline alongside Chiellini.

Simply put: Prandelli’s choice of which formation to go with today is the lens through which the narrative of this one will be written.

The 3-5-2 and the 4-3-1-2 see Italy play very different styles—and they react very differently to a 4-4-1-1.  While a 4-3-1-2 is much more orthodox, conducive to man-marking England, and allows the Italians to control the game much better with possession football, a 3-5-2 is a much more risky prospect—but one that could play dividends.  So far, England have been very comfortable playing their Hodgsonian style—content to sit back, remain organized, work hard defensively, and then attack as a group (particularly by working the ball into dangerous, wide positions).  A 3-5-2 may help the Italians unlock England’s organized defensive construction, but it would also likely make Prandelli’s men more defensively vulnerable and could force their wing backs to play at an almost suicidal tempo.

TWO.  Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo have been absolutely superb—and have almost identical statistics through three matches.  Stevie G has played provider three times for England and has undoubtedly been the engine of their attack.  Pirlo has also done it all, finding the back of the net against Croatia on a gorgeous free-kick and assisting on two of Italy’s three other goals.  Over the hill?  Hardly.  All eyes on these two today.

THREE.  England must continue their practice of defending from the top-down.  One of the least publicized aspects of Hodgson’s defensive system might be its most intriguing—the allocation of very strict defensive duties to both forwards.

While Wayne Rooney is no stranger to occasionally roaming deeply into his team’s own half and making a crucial challenge at Manchester United, his defensive role is more streamlined and regimented with Hodgson’s England.

The concept is simple enough that Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll, hardly possessing any defensive faculties between them, have done a decent job of buying in: When the ball is being advanced on your side, check back, drop in defensive support, and face-up the man in possession.

It is a simple bit of defensive responsibility and requires a tad more movement for the front-men, but it makes a big difference for England’s defensive shape and keeps the marks organized in the midfield.

Not to be that American in the room, but it’s a little like an effective half-court press in basketball, which uses that extra bit of early defensive effort to try and disrupt shaky guard play.  In any event, a lot of the credit that has gone to the Three Lions’ midfield for holding teams at bay when not in possession should actually go, in part, to the way Hodgson has used his strikers as his first line of defense.  It will be interesting to see how it is used against Italy—particularly if they end up playing with three in the back.

“He is who we thought he is?”

FOUR.  What to do about Ashley Young?  It’s no secret that the lad has struggled throughout his first three matches and has drawn criticism for some poor decisions in the attacking third in addition to some suspect defending.  He seems to be in a rut, both confidence- and performance-wise, and though he is slated to start, one has to wonder if Hodgson pulls him earlier than usual if England are down a goal or look like conceding in a deadlocked affair.

FIVE.  Penalties.  We were all thinking it.  These two sides have long histories with spot kicks—Italy’s more happy than England’s, but only marginally (one could say that Grosso’s success offsets Baggio’s calamity, but the lowlights are never exactly forgotten about on ‘The Boot’).

The two teams come into this quarterfinal looking relatively evenly matched, so we would be silly to not examine the possibilities that lie before us here.  For what it’s worth, these are the kinds of numbers we are working with: England and Italy have only won three combined matches on penalties out of a possible 13.

There’s really no reason to analyze penalties—except to say that England, more than anyone else, really cannot win them.  Not only were they bounced out of the 1990, 1998, and 2006 World Cups on penalties, but they were also eliminated in particularly heartbreaking at Euro 2004 to hosts Portugal and in 1996 when “football came home.”

So, in light of the fact that there is no analytical value to really dissecting a possible penalty scenario, I’ll include a brief personal history of spite on the topic that may interest TSG’s American soccer readership (feel free to stop reading now though).

I’ll come clean—I’m an England supporter at this tournament.  But, if there was a way both of these teams could lose on penalties, I’d choose that option.

Let me explain: Despite being an ardent, star-spangled American soccer supporter, I am actually a former and future England resident.  I’ve had the pleasure of living in London in the past and I am slated to return in September.  I love the country and its people.  However…

‘Banter’ (otherwise known as being a prick with repartee that often becomes a little too honest and  spirited) is as much a part of the fabric of English society as tea and crumpets (or, if we’re being real about what England is, Tesco packaged sandwiches and dubstep).  And, for as many times as I’ve had the piss taken out of me for being a Yank who likes “saw-kerr” by many an Englishman in the pub or on the terraces, I’ve always been able to smile and point to one of the aforementioned penalty defeats (…and Joe Gaetjens) as my comeback.

Yes, as I said, I do root for England in the Euros.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t recognize that they will blow it in penalties—and that I will cruelly enjoy it when it happens.  And, strangely enough, the English (though they won’t admit it) enjoy it somewhat too.  Somewhere, deep down, they love this vain search for international football glory like they love EastEnders.  The best soap opera in England is, after all, the Three Lions.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to do anything other than root against Italy, the country with two gargantuan match fixing scandals on their hands in the past six years.  It is a nation whose own officials seem willing to admit that their football culture is rotten at its roots—and they’re right.  When such a cardinal sin is now becoming a reasonably regular crime perpetrated by the nation’s best and brightest stars (who already make millions upon millions), you know you have a problem that goes far beyond dollars and cents.  It suggests a distinctly hubristic character of Italian football—and whether or not that’s true, it’s hard to ignore the possibility of that quality playing a role in scandals like these.  It certainly doesn’t seem like an unreasonable suggestion.  There was an op-ed by Joshua Wells on TSG not long ago describing the arrogance of the archetypical English football snob… but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve spoken to the Italian version of that guy.  As much as the English never believe they are going to win, the Italians seem to think equally as intensely that they can never lose—until they finally do.

I was fortunate enough to be in the stadium in Vienna when the Italians bowed out on penalties against Spain in 2008—and I shocked myself with how excited I was to see them lose.  I’m usually quite reserved in general, and especially when it comes to matches I have no personal stake in.  Needless to say, my passion for seeing them get knocked off absolutely shocked me.

So, I’d like to wish both sides luck… because that’s about the only nice thing I can say when deep down, as an American soccer fan, I kind of hope I could see both of them blow it on penalties.  Awful as I may sound at this moment, there is something very beautiful about this kind of spot kick woe.  For all its complexity, football teams are often undone in the end by the inability to put a ball in from 12 yards, completely uncontested.  We’ll see if that’s the case today.

Enjoy… and God Bless America.

Prediction: England win on penalties, 1-1 after extra-time.  Fooled ya.

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39 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/24 at 5:37 AM

    To me, Ashley Young has been one of the most disappointing players this tournament. Only three observations, but expected more from Young.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/24 at 6:13 AM

      Usually, I agree with your “sample size error” argument. But this is tournament football, where the sample size is always going to be small, by definition. This is what is is all about. And in the knock out stage especially, you have got to turn up or you’re packing your bags and going home.

      I expected a more important contribution from Young too. With the exception of a few crosses, It is OK to say he has been a disappointment offensively over all. Do you think that has to do with Mr. Hodgson’s instructions not to over commit? Or is it stage fright?

      Keep Calm & Carry On.

      Reply

      • Posted by Zack on 2012/06/24 at 11:20 AM

        I think it’s a combination of things. It’s undeniable that, given his skill set and his predilection for pouring forward as a winger, he’s very awkward in Hodgson’s system. I don’t agree with the argument that Young is by any means “too good to leave out” and I don’t think he’s the best option at that position. Within Hodgson’s system, the only reasonable place for him (given his failure to truly adapt to the defensive needs of the team) is in the hole… and obviously he won’t be starting there. I think he’s an immensely talented player, but not one whom you can afford to have on the pitch for that long as a defensive liability at this stage.

        He’s played on big stages this year and done fine, so I don’t think it’s stage fright… but he’s playing in a system that stresses a very different set of defensive responsibilities. That unfamiliarity, coupled with his form taking a hit in general, leaves us with what we have now… an Ashley Young who should not be on the pitch for England. Roy’s sticking to his guns, though, God bless him.

        Reply

      • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/24 at 11:47 AM

        I thought there were stretches and big games were Young disappeared for Man Utd as well.

        Reply

        • Posted by Zack Goldman on 2012/06/24 at 12:07 PM

          Certainly. Especially at the end of the campaign. But he also had quite a few wonderful performances against decent competition.

          Reply

    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/24 at 2:23 PM

      That giant gagging sound was Young choking on his penalty.

      Reply

    • Posted by Crow on 2012/06/24 at 3:06 PM

      Epic foreshadowing

      Reply

  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/24 at 5:49 AM

    Another great narrative in this one –whether it goes to penalties or not–is the aging Buffon and his last stand versus Joe Hart who has a chance to make a name for himself as England’s first bonafide world class keeper candidate.

    Hard to argue that Hart despite some issues, hasn’t been a key to England’s success

    Reply

  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/24 at 6:03 AM

    A key tactical battle in this one is some combination of Ashley Cole and whoever is playing combinations with him on the left (Rooney, Young).

    A few key points here:

    - Italy’s diamond notoriously gets narrow….
    - …leaving space for a winger like Cole to really get up the pitch….
    - Italy seems to be using Cassano as an outlet on the left for ball carriage a lot as well.

    That makes the key tactical battle…entertaining or rather Balotelli vs. Cole and Terry.

    This is why Italy’s formation is so key here. Add an extra midfielder and take chances with England’s counter (good, not great) or stick with the 4-4-2 and risk Cole’s forays up the pitch.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/24 at 6:15 AM

      What about Rooney dropping off and being tight on Pirlo when Italy have the ball?

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/24 at 6:20 AM

        I refer to point #3 above. Very key and it will be interesting to see how quickly ENG organize versus Pirlo’s reception and passes up the pitch.

        Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/24 at 6:21 AM

      Also, Lescott plays the left centre back (although, that is Terry’s usual and favored position).

      But agree with your comments about midfield diamond and width. It has to be an viale for England to try and exploit.

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/24 at 6:23 AM

        Oh, that’s right. Forgo that so Lescott and Cole…which to me makes England more susceptible. For all Terry’s faults, he’s a good defender when the defense is organized.

        Reply

  4. Posted by narkid on 2012/06/24 at 7:20 AM

    im expecting a hattrick from balotelli today, or at least a brace.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Nelsonaoatl on 2012/06/24 at 10:43 AM

    How instrumental will Scott Parker’s performance be today?

    Reply

    • Posted by Zack on 2012/06/24 at 11:13 AM

      Hugely. Biggest match of his career by far. He’s got to stifle Pirlo and face Balotelli for the first time since their incident… will be very interesting to see how he handles the occasion.

      Reply

      • Posted by KickinNames.. on 2012/06/24 at 5:38 PM

        Parker has been a liability for Eng in the last two games and today again IMO. Missed too many simple through ball and generally was not accurate enough when it counted. Word was he has an Achilles injury and it def seemed to effect his play.
        Although Gerrard was not terrible today he just labors in his movement due to his injuries and too often he tries to do far too much for what his pace and abilities offer. He surprisingly worked hard at defending but found his quality to be a step below what was needed to beat Italy.
        Andy Carroll will always disappoint you when you trust him in big spots. Thinks way too much of himself obviously and just continued to try to bungle possession after good ball winning and hold up play. Too many touches and he thinks that he can push the ball by and run by defenders which just isn’t happening.

        Reply

  6. Posted by dth on 2012/06/24 at 11:50 AM

    I wish we could’ve seen both teams at full strength–a healthy Giuseppe Rossi here, a healthy Jack Wilshere there.

    Reply

  7. Posted by dth on 2012/06/24 at 1:15 PM

    Tangentially on topic: I think Pirlo could play until he’s, like, forty. Of all players active, what’s the best old-dude team available? Pirlo and Scholes have got to be in midfield. Giggs gets a place. Zanetti is superhuman. Who else? Too bad van der Sar retired, he’d be an easy pick at keeper. Instead, we’ll go with Brad Friedel. Is it Inzaghi or del Piero at forward? Perhaps Shevchenko?

    Reply

    • Posted by Zack on 2012/06/24 at 1:37 PM

      Just said the same thing. Would love to see Pirlo in MLS one day (Del Piero might be the closest we ever get to that). Very special to watch.

      Reply

    • Posted by Kevin on 2012/06/24 at 1:38 PM

      Zidane could still lace up

      Reply

    • Funny to think that Pirlo’s still only 33. Actually younger than guys like Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand and just a few days older than Carlos Bocanegra.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/24 at 2:20 PM

        It’s crazy that he’s only 33. Feels like he’s been playing for decades and he looks about 45.

        Reply

    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/24 at 2:22 PM

      And he has giant brass balls to pull off a penalty like that.

      Reply

  8. Posted by narkid on 2012/06/24 at 1:38 PM

    what a clinic the italians are putting on today and like it is nothing, they can sub out some of their best players. italians make such wonderful passes, that always have some serious intent. and their defense, you need look no further to find the best defense in the world. they must have won 90% of the 50/50 balls. this game reminds me of a mario puzzo story and the italians are pulling all the strings, as usual.

    how has balotelli not scored? john terry i guess, player of the game for england.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Zack on 2012/06/24 at 1:41 PM

    Joe Hart WOULD win this game on a penalty. The prophet Ian has spoken.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Nelsonaoatl on 2012/06/24 at 1:52 PM

    Is it me or does Walcott suck

    Reply

  11. Posted by Zack on 2012/06/24 at 2:08 PM

    Diamanti is spectacular.

    Reply

  12. Posted by narkid on 2012/06/24 at 2:26 PM

    you could not ask for a better semi finals than portugal v spain and germany v italy.. wow!!!!!

    Reply

  13. Posted by Jared on 2012/06/24 at 2:26 PM

    And England pull an England to go out. It’s definitely fair to say that Italy deserved to go through with their dominant performance.

    Is it safe to now say that it doesn’t really matter who manages the English as they just don’t have the talent to compete with the best in the world? I doubt Mourinho could do much more with the players available.

    Reply

    • Posted by Union on 2012/06/24 at 2:46 PM

      The good news for England is that they DO have some young guys coming up to fill in some holes. I don’t think there problem is necessary the talent. They just don’t play well together as a team. They have 0 understanding of each other. Anytime an English attacking player got the ball you felt as though it were 1 vs. 11 bc no one played in sync. Their issue was the central midfield, Gerrard is no longer the attacking player he once was and Parker is just not good enough. Adding a healthy Cleverley and Wilshire helps things. Carroll did okay for most of the game, then reverted towards his Liverpool form towards the end. And Walcott is as one dimensional as always, would have preferred Oxlade-Chamberlain. Anyways, long story short, I think the English will be a better club at the World Cup.

      Reply

      • Cole and Johnson did not perform like they can and that more than anything else let England down. They were okay on defense but were awful at keying the attack and extremely wasteful in possession.

        Reply

    • Posted by dude on 2012/06/24 at 3:13 PM

      Seriously, who lets Ashley Young take a penalty? There is literally not a player on the pitch I would have take that shot first.

      Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/24 at 5:00 PM

      Better team went through today in the end. But always tough on a penalty shoot out (especially given the chances we had in the first half).

      But keep on hating Engand Jared, we both know the US team would not get through the group in this competition.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/25 at 3:36 AM

        I don’t think speaking the truth regarding England is hating. It’s clear that England has more talent than the US but the both need to pull a Bunker Bob strategy when they come up against the big boys. Unfortunately, in the last big tournament that both were in they bunkered against pretty much everyone.

        Reply

        • Jared and Antonio,

          What you write is not entirely fair.

          1. You can talk merit, possession,deserve this and deserve that etc. etc. but when all is said and done England could quite easily have been in the semifinals not Italy. Italy’s finishing was, as the Brits say “shambolic” ( and I don’t even know what it really means it just sounds cool). Balotelli does not want so much to be a great goal scorer, he wants to be a scorer of great goals. In America we would say he f+++s around too much. They will be in deep doodoo against Germany if they don’t find a way to tighten that up and increase his efficiency.

          Yes , an England victory would have been undeserved and papering over the cracks but so what? Chelsea isn’t going to give back their Champions league trophy any time soon and a few years from now no one will remember how Chelsea won, just that they did.

          2. “It’s clear that England has more talent than the US but the both need to pull a Bunker Bob strategy when they come up against the big boys. “

          Not entirely true in England’s case. This is temporary for England and an ongoing process for the USMNT.

          Hodgson got the job about one month ago and he lost a lot of players to injury. Don’t tell me he does not understand tactics. This was a team put together on the fly under unusual circumstances so they reverted to 4-4-2 simply because it was the quickest and simplest way to get everyone on the same page. England may not be “big boys” but a lot of their players play with the big boy players, on big boy teams, in big boy competitions on a regular basis, a huge advantage our USMNT do not have.

          The point is, if some of England’s missing talent been available and if Hodgson had had more than a month, it is easy to see a different result to this and more importantly, to future games. This England team could get better, a lot better, very quickly.

          It would have been better if they had made their penalties but otherwise, this was a good tournament for England

          Reply

      • Posted by Antonio Henry on 2012/06/25 at 5:47 PM

        no need to get defensive George, but saying the U.S. wouldn’t get through the group England got through? based on recent (European) performances? Ukraine? Czech Republic? Really?

        Maybe if young player’s like Rodwell and Jones and Wilshere/Ox/Cleverley would age faster we’d be talking about a different team

        Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames.. on 2012/06/24 at 5:45 PM

      Its funny but up until 2006 that was the complete scouting report on Spain.Good but just not good/talented/tactically organized/strong willed enough. Probably a bit early to start throwing dirt in the England grave as a solid nucleus of strong professional players along with a better tactical team approach can change fortunes in a hurry.

      Reply

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