Two versions of 4-4-2 collided as England used the flanks and Italy the centre, writes Richard Jolly.
ENGLAND (2) 0-0 (4) ITALY
As two versions of 4-4-2 collided, England tried to use the flanks to make the breakthrough and Italy the centre of the pitch. The flaw in both formations was shown but, primarily, the problems of the antiquated English system with a flat four in the middle.
Initially, however, it seemed a strength as England first attempted to win the game before desperately trying not to lose it. In their group games, England and Italy had been perhaps the two narrowest teams in the tournament, especially in midfield. The downside of the diamond Cesare Prandelli deployed is that when it features a quartet who are essentially central midfielders, the full-backs are afforded too little protection.
England aimed to exploit that, particularly on their right. It was telling the first chance came from James Milner and was directed at Glen Johnson who, with this Italian system, had no immediate opponent and thus greater freedom. Milner, seen largely as a defensive winger earlier in the tournament, delivered more crosses than anyone else in the first half; briefly, he was an attacking force.
In England's bid to be more adventurous, Scott Parker, purely a holding player beforehand, made a couple of forays forward. But, undermanned in midfield, it necessitated everyone shifting up the pitch. England had defended deep in their group games. Their more ambitious approach had to involve a higher line, enabling Mario Balotelli to twice spring the offside trap – once when, on a rare occasion, John Terry and Joleon Lescott were near the half-way line. The dangers of this English defence pushing up having been illustrated, they duly retreated.
And, from the second half onwards, England aimed to defend in two banks of four, as they had against France and Ukraine. It was a policy that was enforced by the loss of control. Italy dominated possession in a predictable way. Because, as has been apparent throughout the tournament, fielding two central midfielders leaves a side at an inherent disadvantage in the game's key sphere of influence.
The downside of England's central midfield pair, against their four Italian counterparts, was that a striker had to be handed the task of shadowing Andrea Pirlo. Danny Welbeck was the chosen man, meaning the forwards sometimes swapped, with Wayne Rooney the most advanced man, but he struggled to restrict the playmaker's influence.
Pirlo's laser-accurate passes created two first-half chances for Balotelli alone; he was the game's dominant figure, something which England's tactics always rendered likely, and which indicates the benefit of using a technically gifted, inventive player as the deepest midfielder; it is an area on the pitch where he can find space. Indeed, after Welbeck's substitution, all pretence at putting anyone on Pirlo was abandoned.
Yet, even if Roy Hodgson's plan of Welbeck marking Pirlo had worked, Italy would still have had one free man: for instance, it was Daniele de Rossi when he hit the post and again when Joe Hart parried a long-range shot and, while Claudio Marchisio made little headway against Parker, it tended to be either De Rossi or Riccardo Montolivo.
It all illustrated that, when teams field two strikers, the Italian policy of leaving space on the flanks is not failsafe, but it is far more prudent. While Italy lacked width and rarely reached the byline, instead they played diagonal passes or crosses from infield positions to the far post – as, for instance, in Antonio Nocerino's disallowed goal. The other point is that their troubles were limited to one side – right-back Ignazio Abate took Ashley Young back with him on his raids forward – and to the first half.
After Plan A, of being more attacking, had failed to produce a breakthrough, Plan B was to play for penalties. It worked, but with Italy having 36 shots, eight on target, that required fortune, and England's luck ran out in the shootout.