Of all the blessings bestowed upon this tournament not the least satisfying has been the re-emergence of Andrea Pirlo as a player of the highest class. His performance against England last night was as complete a display of midfield generalship as you could wish to see. If this owed something to England’s perplexing willingness to grant the Juventus man time on the ball then that was there fault and scarcely something that should be used to diminish Pirlo’s excellence.
Juventus man? That still seems an odd thing to type, so closely has the little fella been associated with Milan. And when Milan allowed Pirlo to leave for the Old Lady last summer it seemed a final proof that a distinguished career was stumbling towards a slightly sad end. Certainly few people, I think, anticipated Pirlo’s renaissance.
In this respect, his return to prominence in this tournament has been a treat all the sweeter for being so unexpected. Italy, meanwhile, have offered a happy contrast to the ill-fated squad who performed so poorly in South Africa two years ago. This is more like the Italy of old: tough yet flexible and above all together in attack and defence. (It is worth bearing in mind that Italy were only defeated by Spain on penalties four years ago and, having already drawn with Spain in this tournament they have a decent claim to be considered unfairly under-rated.)
All this without a proper striker too! Who knows how Italy might do with someone other than Balotelli leading the line.
As it is they gave England an almighty 0-0 hammering. Zonal marking is all the rage these days but Pirlo’s performance—and England’s slackness—surely demonstrated that there are times when a measure of man-marking might be more appropriate.
It might be thought a negative ploy but reducing the game to a 10-a-side contest would have helped England last night. Since 85% of Italy’s play comes through Pirlo permitting him to stroll through the game in time and space is an eccentric tactic. Better to assign him a shadow and remove his influence from the game.
Indeed with all this talk of false nines and other types designed to drag defenders out of position, the case for assigning a man-marker to the opposition’s playmaker seems increasingly strong and the kind of trend that could well be due for a revival.
Meanwhile, we should salute Pirlo for proving many of us wrong and offering a masterclass in midfield play last night. And, of course, a penalty that is the highlight of the tournament so far.