The Pirlo King

England know they must stop the veteran midfielder from pulling the strings for Italy in tonight’s quarter-final in Kiev, says Miguel Delaney

Andrea Pirlo was wincing. Even worse, he was wayward. With little more than 20 minutes gone in Italy's last group game, the midfielder had been targeted – and hit – by Kevin Doyle.

It was part of a trend. Initially, Ireland's pressing was really getting to an Italian team that were already very evidently anxious about qualifying for the quarter-finals. That was signified, more than anything, by the fact that – startlingly – Pirlo misplaced more than a few passes.

Something needed to be done. So, Prandelli reshaped his midfield and Pirlo was repositioned. Within minutes, he had dangerously released the Italian forwards behind the Irish defence with three of those exquisite passes. The third saw Antonio Di Natale win a corner. And, from that, Pirlo sent over an impossible inswinging set-piece from which Antonio Cassano scored. There, in a matter of minutes, was England's entire game tonight. Stop Pirlo and you stop Italy. Allow him space and allow yourself the prospect of disappointment.

Pirlo, however, does more than set the pace. He effectively personifies the entire difference in approach between the two teams, as well as an interesting reversal of history. Since Prandelli took over Italy, he has very consciously changed the identity and philosophy of the national team. More specifically, Prandelli has attempted to adopt the Barcelona model.

As he sees it, the only way to truly control your own destiny in football is for a team to impose itself on a game. And you only do that by imposing yourself on the ball. "You earn luck by playing attacking football," Prandelli said on the eve of the Ireland game.

For the past two years, Italy have generally controlled around 60 per cent of possession in every game. It's a far cry from the more minimalist percentage-playing of the 60s and 80s. At the centre of all that – in every sense – is Pirlo. Indeed, the only game in that time where Italy have dipped below 50 per cent was – naturally – against Spain. And that, of course, was when Pirlo came up against the player closest to him in the modern game: Xavi.

That afternoon, Italy had to surrender possession because of Spain's general superiority. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean Xavi is superior to Pirlo. Indeed, one predecessor of both players certainly doesn't think so. Luis Suarez Miramontes was the Spanish playmaker when they first won the European Championships in 1964 and, at the time, the tone-setter for Inter's greatest ever team too. "Pirlo is better," he said on the eve of the tournament. "Andrea hits more difficult passes. He takes more risks."

And that's the thing about "the architect" and Italy. Although Pirlo's passing accuracy isn't quite as high as Xavi's, that's simply because he has a greater responsibility to force games. Indeed, he was the most influential midfielder of the entire opening stage with two assists and that divine free-kick against Croatia.

As both Spain and Ireland also found out having felt the force of his through balls, Italy's main attacking threat comes from Pirlo's range-finding. For all the talent of their much talked-about forwards, it's the Juventus midfielder that finds them.

Tonight, though, his effect may go even deeper. It may completely affect how England play too. Roy Hodgson must decide whether to sacrifice either the physique of Andy Carroll, the talent of Wayne Rooney, the trickery of Danny Welbeck or the power of Steven Gerrard will have to be sacrificed. Because, essentially, someone is going to have to pick up and really press Pirlo.

In the Croatia game, Slaven Bilic had to put Luka Modric on him. But it worked. The pattern of the game was completely changed after half-time. It's going to take something away from England's attack. But, against a team that will control much more of the ball, it's the only way to take something out of Italy's.

News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn