World Cup 2014: England vs. Italy: 5 Things We Learned from Best Game So Far
England's World Cup in Brazil is off to the worst possible start after being beaten 2-1 Saturday by Italy, who were inspired by the superb Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo was phenomenal as he led England's midfield on a merry dance in the rainforest in Manaus. Claudio Marchisio gave the Italians the lead after a well-worked corner kick saw the midfielder hammer the ball home from outside the box.
England equalized immediately through Daniel Sturridge following up superb link-up play by Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney. The Italians stepped up a gear at the beginning of the second half and took the lead when Mario Balotelli exposed Gary Cahill to head home what would turn out to be the winning goal.
The Azzurri then closed up shop and allowed England possession, but they continued to dictate the tempo of the game as England were run ragged.
Italy's tournament experience shone through, as Cesare Prandelli's team, who have not won an international game since last September, completely outplayed England.
The Italians played the game at a perfect tempo and adapted to the extreme conditions in Manaus to far greater effect than England. To demonstrate, all one has to do is realize that five English players went down with cramps and exhaustion, while not one Italian would suffer the same fate.
Italy dominated midfield and the game as a whole through Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti. England's midfield in contrast, were insipid and offered nothing. The much-vaunted Liverpool midfield pairing of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were passengers throughout as Italy controlled the game.
Italy's playing style is perfect for tournament play, whereas England's blood-and-thunder approach was badly exposed. That being said, England can take heart from a brave performance where their naivety proved their ultimate undoing.
Here, Bleacher Report offers five things we learned from England vs. Italy.
England: Square Pegs in Round Holes
Before the game, former English international Danny Mills, working on commentary for BBC Radio 5 Live, was gushing about the England team. He said:
Roy Hodgson has put in round pegs in round holes. So many times the England side has seemed makeshift at major tournaments, but we look at this team and pretty much each player plays there for their club.
He's changed the formation recently to accommodate that.
This England team has balance, pace, it has everything.
Except, it didn't.
England's fitness, ability to retain possession and tactics are all up for debate.
Hodgson played Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling out of position—square pegs in round holes. Gerrard looked like a shadow of his Liverpool self, Henderson offered nothing and England's defense looked like they had never met before.
England got a lot wrong, but they can still qualify. Hodgson will have to make a few brave decisions, and leaving Gerrard out in the next two matches may be one of them.
Wayne Rooney Was Played Out of Position
Heading into the match, there was massive pressure on Rooney to perform. In the buildup to the tournament, the striker had come under serious scrutiny by one of his former team-mates at Manchester United. Paul Scholes, writing in his blog for an Irish bookmaker, recently made the assertion that Rooney was past his peak.
Rooney duly responded to the criticism in a pre-World Cup press conference where he called Scholes' comments "strange," as per the Irish Independent. Whether Scholes was just trying to imitate Roy Keane and make a name for himself as an analyst remains to be seen. His comments did, however, sting, and now Rooney was in a position where he had to perform.
After just 10 minutes, it was obvious to all keen football observers that Roy Hodgson had selected Rooney out on the left because of his superior work-rate. In the buildup to the game, there was huge speculation suggesting Raheem Sterling would play in the No. 10 role, which is where Rooney traditionally plays for the Three Lions.
Matteo Darmian's impressive forays down the Italian right meant Rooney was forced back to assist Leighton Baines at left-back. This had the side effect of causing a huge gap between defense and attack for England as Sterling became more and more isolated in the centre.
Rooney's assist for Sturridge's goal was world class, but his passing offered a low 81 percent completion rate, as per WhoScored.com. He had a poor game, but Hodgson must take the blame because of where he was selected.
Saying that, the Manchester United man was still the Three Lions' best outfield player after possibly Liverpool's Sturridge. That shows how bad England were.
To further emphasize this point: Would Italy play either Balotelli or Pirlo out of position out on the left?
England Got Their Tactics All Wrong; Gary Neville's Reputation's Up for Debate
Italy set out with a slow, controlled system that exploded into life at key moments. The Italians were patient and purposeful in possession.
England, on the other hand, found it impossible to retain meaningful possession, but they were extremely dangerous on the counter-attack.
It has to be said, Roy Hodgson got his tactics wrong right from the start.
England created the lion's share of chances in the opening stages, despite themselves rather than by design.
The decision to move Rooney out to the left in a defensive role has to be questioned. It caused England's top scorer and most creative player in the final third to become a peripheral figure in an attacking sense. From a defensive point of view, Rooney worked exceedingly hard. He was up against a tough opponent in Matteo Darmian and got caught out by the Italian's clever movement time and time again.
The second half saw Rooney swap positions with Danny Welbeck but to the same effect.
Neville has developed a reputation as a sound analyst, but his wisdom as assistant manager to Roy Hodgson must be questioned. England had problems all over the pitch, but he failed to address any.
Raheem Sterling Did OK, but Needs to Play out Wide
Raheem Sterling has been tipped by many to be the breakout star of the Brazil 2014 World Cup, but how did he do in his debut on football's biggest and most important stage?
To tell the truth, he did OK.
Sterling did all of his best work in the wide positions, where he used his electric pace to isolate and expose defenders with far greater experience. When he was employed in the centre, he tended to take up poor positions and found it difficult to get on the ball.
The direct consequence was Italy dominating possession, particularly in midfield where Pirlo, De Rossi and Verratti all had the run of the pitch. Liverpool's midfield triumvirate of Gerrard, Henderson and Sterling all labored to make an impression in the all-important battleground.
Gerrard was pedestrian, and Henderson made little impression as Italy dominated midfield.
Where Sterling did excel was in counter-attacking. His lovely weighted pass released Rooney to set up England's equalizer. The Liverpool youngster also tried the most amount of dribbles in the game, as per WhoScored.com. Had he been offered the opportunity to play in a wider position, he may have contributed in a far greater fashion.
Roy Hodgson Should Have Taken Ashley Cole and John Terry to Brazil
Hindsight is always 20/20, but Hodgson shouldn't have needed a crystal ball to know that leaving John Terry and Ashley Cole at home was a mistake.
The Chelsea pairing are two of the best defenders England have ever produced. With Cole, there is even a very good argument to say he has been one of the greatest left-backs of all time.
Terry was exceptional last season. He captained and led the Blues to great effect as they pushed Manchester City and Liverpool all the way during the title chase. His leadership skills and positional sense mark him out, even at 33, as one of the best defenders in England.
The same can be said of Cole, who won his 100th cap against Brazil in February.
Italy would not have enjoyed the same freedom on the left had Cole been selected ahead of Leighton Baines. Likewise, Terry would have been a better option than either Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill.