It is great to be here, writing teams and tactics and theories about the World Cup ahead. And because the list of the truly world-class players is quite small, we are talking about the same one you were all worrying about two years ago. I know Andrea Pirlo is on your minds because people have been telling me so in the few weeks since I have been back in England, at the end of my first season in charge of Napoli.
Yes, he is quite a player. Of course we need to discuss him in some detail because we know he will probably be very dangerous in a place like Manaus when England start their tournament against Cesare Prandelli's team on Saturday. The simple idea is to man-mark Pirlo. Simple in theory? Maybe. Simple in practice? No. Even if somebody like Danny Welbeck is sent on to the pitch with the job of stopping Pirlo – chasing and chasing, closing him down – the Italian will still have the ability to find space and put in the pass that can change everything.
It was the same last season when my Napoli side played his Juventus team. (They won in Turin, we won in Stadio San Paolo.) We started with a strategy to stop Pirlo as much as we could, controlling the space around him and limiting the possibilities of him creating serious danger. Whatever you do against him, he will probably always have his moment to put in the important pass. "Thread it" as I know you like to say. A very appropriate word!
It wasn't easy when we were at Liverpool and faced him at the heart of the Milan team, in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. It was difficult to close him down. On a hot night in Istanbul, it was Harry Kewell's job to be tight on him as soon as we lost the ball, staying close to him every time, putting pressure on him, being alert to collect the second ball, not letting Pirlo settle down. Not allowing him time to pick out his pass, basically.
You can never plan for everything as a manager and Kewell shouted across to us that he was injured after about 20 minutes. But what was important about that game was approaching Pirlo with an attacking mentality. We also wanted Kewell and Steven Gerrard to make use of the spaces either side of Pirlo – because despite his incredible talent he was not the quickest when acting as a defensive shield. We also wanted to double up in the wide areas, switching play fast from midfield to isolate one of the full-backs, who in Milan's diamond formation had to do all the work on the wings.
England have the mix of players at this competition to have ambition, too, when approaching Pirlo and Italy. They don't need to live on their wits, as I think you call it, sitting and sitting and playing only on the counter-attack. They have the right mix of players – Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, experience; Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, pace and hunger – to take the ball and do their own thing, knowing that they can cause Italy a threat and be dangerous.
Of course, it is always about the balance between defence and attack. As a manager you know that it always depends on what the other team do, too. Look out particularly for my Napoli player Lorenzo Insigne in the days and weeks ahead. He is a young player – not tall, but with pace and mobility who works on the left side, looking to go in-field. And he is not only dangerous because of his goals.
People in England also often ask me about Mario Balotelli, who was at Inter when I arrived as manager. Sometimes players need to be 26 or 27 to see what talent they have and decide not to waste it. It is never too late. For now, it is just difficult to predict how much he will threaten England.
So, there are players and names to think about but England have a better squad to beat Italy than they did when we were writing about them here four years ago. The readers who have followed my columns in The Independent will know that I believe there is too much English pessimism sometimes. The word "architect" has always been used about Pirlo, but England need to know that they can be their own architects. I remember that in some important games at Liverpool I used to write four words down, in Spanish, to remind the players what I wanted them to remember. Decision. Conviccion. Hambre. Quererla. Decisiveness. Conviction. Hunger. Want the ball. England can go into this match with all of those things in their minds.
Spain team's attacking habit stands them in good stead
We will talk more about Spain in the weeks ahead but I wanted to discuss them a little at the start. Some people are talking about them being older but their players are still at their best age and the advantage of using the same style of play for years is that everyone coming in knows exactly what to do.
I think the issue for them will be the huge workload a lot of them have just completed. Many of the players will have competed either in the all-Madrid Champions League final or in the La Liga title fight, which went to the end of the season. For the Sevilla players, there was a Europa League final. Vicente Del Bosque and his staff will not have expected all that work to last until the very end of the season.
They will be tested hard against the Netherlands on Saturday. Louis van Gaal has been talking about the Spanish quality and his Dutch side might play five at the back, as he has suggested, and will try to counter-attack. Teams know Spain very well and will be tough in defence.
But Spain have a new option in the form of the striker Diego Costa – hard, aggressive and tough in defence too. Also look out for David Silva, someone who we will talk about more, who I had on my books as a 17-year-old at Valencia. He could make a statement on the tournament. Talking to people in the Spanish camp, I can see there is a good state of mind. It is logic, not patriotism, that makes me think they can make history and win again.
Belgium have the quality to be tournament's dark horses
We always talk dark horses and I think Belgium are the ones to look out for. They have one of the youngest squads, a captain in Vincent Kompany who I think has all of the necessary qualities – and a group which looks winnable.
They could go a very long way.Reuse content