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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
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

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness