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Spot on: Death by shootout

Towards the end of extra-time in England's quarterfinal against Italy, one veteran voice of many international tournaments mused: "It's as though there's only one actual footballer on the pitch."

sports Updated: Jun 26, 2012 12:04 IST

Towards the end of extra-time in England's quarterfinal against Italy, one veteran voice of many international tournaments mused: "It's as though there's only one actual footballer on the pitch." No prizes for guessing who: Andrea Pirlo, from a strolling start, ended up dominating the midfield, maintaining the same stately pace through the 120 minutes, sure in the knowledge that as others dissipated their energies his own gentler tempo would rise above all.

The oldest outfield player on the pitch was guiding his gently malevolent passes and drifting around with that upright assertive jog that seems to say: Enough, this is how we're going to do this now.

SURPASSED ALL

Pirlo completed more passes in the match than England's entire midfield put together, but it was a textural difference as much as a statistical one: watching England take possession of the ball felt a bit like being exposed suddenly to the Olympic Stadium's deafening half-time PA system --- a painful assault of panic-inducing Euro-disco - when all you really wanted was a little peace, a moment of Pirlo.

Italy's deep-lying playmaker has already been roundly praised, but perhaps we should not go overboard. Pirlo is a very good player: he has been a key influence in teams that have won the World Cup and the Champions League. But the fact is, once the initial frenzy of space-cramping energy had died down, England were perfect opposition for him. Germany will no doubt provide a less obviously flattering reflection, keeping the ball a little and making Pirlo wait and work.

The fact remains that one old, slow very talented man was enough to expose the cracks, large and small, in whatever it is England are still hoping will happen when they play international football. It is of course a wider problem that Pirlo threw a light on, what was exposed above all was an absence of even a touch of Pirlo in England's 23-man staff.

Skill shortage

There hasn't been a similar England player for many years. Paul Gascoigne kept possession brilliantly when the mood was right, even towards his skinny-legged end: Glenn Hoddle springs to mind. Perhaps Ray Wilkins might have been well-suited to the modern game. And Paul Scholes is the current equivalent.

This is what football has become, a business of holding and transferring possession of the ball. Pirlo may have something austere and ancient in his bearing, but he is in fact jauntily state of the art, whereas for England there is an intriguing reversal of energies in the new style of football. And so where England were once the most physically resilient and energetic of teams, they are now invariably the most exhausted, a team ill-equipped with the technical skills that lessen the physical burden.

Even as shootouts go, Italy’s triumph was revealing. The shootout was a fair reflection of what had happened in the match once England’s early bursts had receded. What is needed — and this is not an imminent prospect — is a shift in mentality, a slowing down at all levels, above all the willingness to tolerate the odd moment of Pirlo-like calm.