Rooney pressuring Pirlo will help England quell Italy's creative threat

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's Euro 2012 StatsZone app to demonstrate the threat Italy's various creative outlets will cause England in Sunday evening's quarterfinal

Italy’s progress so far in Euro 2012 has been steady rather than spectacular. They qualified from a reasonably difficult group with five points, and one can make the case that they’re either a solid, unbeaten side – or a team that has only beaten Ireland, who were already eliminated from the competition.

Cesare Prandelli has built an attractive modern football side with plenty of flair, passing ability and creativity. As such, it’s surprising that they’ve scored only one goal in open play – Antonio Di Natale’s fine finish against Spain. Their other goals, from Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, have all come from set-pieces.

But England shouldn’t be tricked into thinking the Italians are a set-piece side, for they have various sources of creativity. Prandelli will probably continue with the midfield diamond he used against Ireland, rather than the 3-5-2 that started against Spain and Croatia. That means four central midfield slots up for grabs, and Prandelli has admirably tried to fill those positions with technically gifted players.

To nullify Italy’s creative threat, England must watch out for three main players – Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, and Cassano. That’s not to ignore the other three Italian midfielders and forwards, but Daniele De Rossi plays a box-to-box role on the left, Thiago Motta tends to drop back from his position as a makeshift trequartista, while Mario Balotelli works the channels.

Pirlo is the clearest danger. As shown by the positions he received the ball in against Ireland, he’s happy to wander all over the pitch to pick up possession. Although he has a big defensive responsibility as the deepest midfielder, the other three in the diamond are happy to drop deep and cover for him, allowing Pirlo to venture where he pleases.

Roy Hodgson will ask Wayne Rooney to drop onto Pirlo when England don’t have the ball, or else England’s midfield won’t be able to deal with him. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker will sit deep, and if they try to move up the pitch and press Pirlo, they’ll leave the other Italian midfielders free.

The Manchester United forward will have a big responsibility here, but he’ll have to make sure he doesn’t make any rash tackles. Pirlo is extremely good at ‘buying’ free-kicks around the halfway line, and considering how badly England coped with these situations against Sweden, it’s something they could do without.

Claudio Marchisio, who played alongside Pirlo throughout Juventus’ unbeaten 2011/12 season, is a different threat. While Pirlo ambles around the pitch and hits long, ambitious diagonal balls, Marchisio is a sneakier, more subtle threat. He slides forward from a centre-right position, creeping towards the penalty area unchecked.

Marchisio’s ball retention is superb, and suits this system perfectly. He helps Italy move up the pitch towards goal, and provides enough mobility to prevent the formation turning into a boring, flat 4-3-1-2, the type of system too common in Serie A over the past couple of years. England won’t have a specific player watching Marchisio, but they must be careful of his movement – particularly when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, and he can pop up between the lines, unnoticed.

Then there’s the joker in the pack, Cassano. A forward rather than a midfielder, he cleverly moves into deeper positions when the opposition is focusing on Italy’s midfield. As the graphic below demonstrates, Cassano’s happy to prowl the width of the pitch to get the ball, but enjoys trying to play straight passes down the centre of the pitch – though this was often unsuccessful against Ireland.

It feels like Cassano doesn’t get enough acclaim in Britain. Perhaps he hasn’t been as visible as other established internationals – he has rarely starred in the Champions League, he’s yet to have a significant impact at international level, and he was a promising youngster rather than an outright superstar in the Football Italia years. Now would be a perfect time to put the record straight.

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