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.
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.
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.