Until England can find their Pirlo, we must prepare for more of this
23:07 GMT, 24 June 2012
Ah well. Maybe we’re good at something else. Geography, perhaps, or structural engineering. We certainly make a nice sandwich. English sparkling wine has a growing international reputation.
Putting the ball in the net from 12 yards under pressure, however, not so much. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
In fact, scratch that. You’ve obviously heard this one before. It’s the one about so near and yet so far, so close and yet a million miles away, and it comes complete with a familiar picture catalogue of anguished faces, tear-streaked cheeks in the stand and a manager whose agenda must now be to rebuild battered egos to do it all again in two years time.
Maestro: Andrea Pirlo (centre) was instrumental in Italy's quarter-final win over England in Kiev
Yet there can be no complaints. Not if we’re honest. Italy were two goals better in the penalty shootout and double that in real time. As Sunday edged towards Monday in the Olympic Stadium, Kiev, one team grew better with age and it certainly wasn’t England. The statistics are simply overwhelming. Italy had 36 shots to England’s nine and eight on target to England’s one. They enjoyed 68 per cent possession and made 833 passes to 364.
It wasn’t so much that England couldn’t keep the ball, but that they couldn’t get it for long periods. The first 30 minutes were evenly matched, possibly the best football England have played since Fabio Capello’s destruction of Croatia, home and away, in the 2010 World Cup qualifying tournament.
The remaining 90 minutes, though, belonged to Italy, and to one man in particular. Andrea Pirlo summed up the gulf in class between the nations. England have no one like him, but then again, who does His style is different to Spain’s urgent interchange of passes. He is often compared to Xabi Alonso but, again, it is an uneasy fit.
Spot on: Pirlo's stunning penalty appeared to knock the stuffing out of England during the shoot-out
Pirlo does not quite have Alonso’s combative edge. He is a dictator, not an enforcer. He tells the ball what to do, barks orders with his feet. England spent so much time trying to contain Pirlo that by the time the players reached the shootout they had nothing left.
Penalties again, then. Why us We know the answer to that, too, sadly. We’re not quite good enough, are we Inefficient at the highest level. England can get so far on endeavour, but closing a match, claiming a result against world-class opposition in 90 or even 120 minutes requires more. England can take it to the brink, but no further.
This was the first penalty shootout of the 2012 European Championship and, with just three matches left, may be the last. And it ended typically in English defeat. Cussed, dogged, Roy Hodgson’s England could give anybody a game; but not a fright. Long before the end, Italy knew they could only lose, rather than England win. And they have lost plenty of times on penalties before. Fortunately, they found a group of players even flakier from 12 yards than they are. England have not won a shootout at tournament this century, a run that began in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship. Football’s coming home It needs to learn how to get its key in the door first.
Over and out: England's players are devastated after being knocked out of Euro 2012 by Italy
So it is that we can add Kiev, capital of Ukraine, to that list of locations at which England have tried, and failed, from the penalty spot. Turin 1990, Wembley 1996, St Etienne 1998, Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006.
It is a varied itinerary, with one common factor: Englishmen in ruins on the pitch. Steven Gerrard was given every opportunity to put a positive spin on proceedings — courageous in defeat and all that — but his face told the story. He had hoped England’s luck would change, but too much of it had been absorbed surviving the 120 minutes.
The next step for new manager Roy Hodgson is the hardest. He has been indulged at this competition because he was dealt a fiendishly difficult hand by the FA’s delay in replacing Capello. Hodgson is a likeable man, a solid citizen, admired coach and extracted some extraordinarily good performances from individual players, not least Gerrard, Joleon Lescott and John Terry. In the circumstances — and given the precedent of Chelsea’s unlikely Champions League triumph — Hodgson has avoided brickbats when England have no more than dug for victory against the odds.
Man in the middle: Roy Hodgson's job as England manager starts for real now after this defeat
A World Cup qualifying group is a different matter, however. England cannot go to Moldova and back to Poland and Ukraine and exist on the counter attack. In the end, fans will tire of such tactics.
Hodgson bristles at being told his teams are hard to beat — he sees it as being damned with faint praise — yet that is precisely what they were here. The semi-finalists — Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal — are the true stars of Euro 2012, three fine teams and one great player, and the timing of England’s exit is a fair reflection of their capabilities. They are one of the best eight teams in Europe, as they have been for longer than it is comfortable to remember.
For a 30-minute spell, however, it was possible to dream. England rose to the occasion at first against Italy, standing toe to toe, executing an insightful gameplan and creating chances. Perhaps that is Hodgson’s greatest achievement. At their best, the confidence England have displayed here is at its highest since the emergence of Wayne Rooney in 2004.
Yet as Pirlo began to exert more influence on the game, so England fell back on familiar strengths, toil in midfield and defending for their lives. Terry was brilliant, again, so too Lescott. Glen Johnson has had a better tournament than many thought possible, perhaps even Hodgson, considering he was poised to favour Kyle Walker.
England's Pirlo Steven Gerrard impressed this summer but is entering the twilight of his career
Pirlo, though, is the player English football lacks, certainly until Jack Wilshere’s future becomes clear. When Italy were in ascendance, Pirlo was the architect. He plays in a position with the whole picture ahead, and contemplates passes that contemporaries cannot imagine. ‘Pirlo is seeing the game from different angles to anyone on that pitch and all of us at home,’ said Rio Ferdinand, and he was right.
Italy’s battleplan was to drag Terry wide using Antonio Cassano, to create the space for Mario Balotelli to latch on to a Pirlo ball over the top. It was simple but effective. Pirlo does not hit long balls anyway, he plays long passes, and as the game wore on his influence grew, and so England’s difficulty in controlling him.
Gerrard and Scott Parker have been immense for England in this tournament, but they must run where Pirlo strolls. England’s inspiration is often perspiration, while Pirlo barely looks as if he breaks sweat.
There is the difference. As time wore on, and the numbers piled up in Italy’s favour, Pirlo set Italy apart. It is testament to England’s determination that it needed penalties to separate the sides, but the next stage of the evolution under Hodgson cannot find solace in turning a mismatch into a lottery.
Hodgson must try to locate England’s Pirlo: but unless Gerrard can be reinvented or Wilshere revived it may be as well to also prepare for more nights like this.