There’s three things I want to focus on in this column: Andrea Pirlo, the heat and England’s defensive frailties.
England appear to be preparing meticulously in Miami for the heat and humidity of Manaus where they play Italy on June 14.
Euro 2004 in Portugal was hot, but the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002 was horrendous. We struggled in 37 degrees (and I struggled more than most) especially against Brazil in Shizuoka.
Before the game we didn’t even go onto the pitch because it was that hot. We stayed inside to warm up – it was ridiculous. We went in front early (through Michael Owen) and Brazil had Ronaldinho sent off in the second-half, but we still couldn’t get a kick.
Against Italy in the heat we need all our ‘footballers’ to play. Possession is everything. Then there’s Pirlo…
He was outstanding in the World Cup in 2006 and got three man of the match awards six years later at Euro 2012.
Pirlo is the world’s greatest playmaker – the complete footballer. Give him time and space and he will destroy you. He’s such a clever player and is so composed. If surrounded he’ll lay it off. If he’s got room he’s devastating.
Even though England’s Euro 2012 game against Italy finished 0-0, we paid nowhere near enough attention to him. Pirlo is not renowned for his athleticism, and he’s 35 now, but that day he ran 11.58 kilometres, more than any England player. He also had more passes (131) than England’s four starting midfielders.
Roy Hodgson seems to have underestimated him in 2012, which surprised me given Alex Ferguson tactics previously to stifle Pirlo.
In 2010 before Man United played AC Milan in the Champions League, Sir Alex gave very specific instructions on how to take care of Pirlo. Man-marking him was a huge part of our pre-game plan – I played against him when Milan beat us 3-0 at the San Siro in 2007. We didn’t man-mark him. He destroyed us. We learned, and it was painful.
Park Ji-Sung was the perfect man for Pirlo in 2010 and never gave him kick (in a 7-2 aggregate victory). You could even see Pirlo getting frustrated and having little kicks out by the end.
Pirlo spoke about Park in his book: ‘They’d programmed him to stop me. His devotion to the task was almost touching. Even though he was a famous player, he consented to being used as a guard dog.”
For Manaus, we need an ‘English Park Ji-Sung’ – one England player designated to man-mark him. Looking at the squad, Danny Welbeck (below) – a good defender who can nick the ball well – could be an option and would be a bold decision, one which gives England a creative outlet, and saddles Pirlo with defensive work.
James Milner or Jordan Henderson could be asked to give Glen Johnson extra cover down the right – when Johnson goes forward it leaves spaces and Gary Cahill will be exposed. It’s got me worried.
Gary Neville and the England management are well aware of Pirlo’s threat. We cannot make the mistakes of 2012 again.
Otherwise, Italy have decent players, without being special. Mario Balotelli can be brilliant but I hope it’s the version who’s sulking and has a little stroll around the pitch.
I’ll preview the game next week but right now I think the best we can hope for is a draw against Italy if we manage the heat, keep the ball and stop Mr Pirlo – we can beat Uruguay and Costa Rica.