Paul Hayward: England didn’t just lose on penalties to Italy ... they lost morally too
ENGLAND lost on penalties, lost on all the statistics and lost morally to Italy, who had 23 shots to the English six and won the possession struggle 68 per cent to 32 per cent as Roy Hodgson made a familiar discovery about the country he now manages. These big knock-out games are an endless loop of shattered dreams.
Not content with hanging on for long periods on three previous Euro 2012 nights, England clung on for two more days, as this quarter-final broke the bounds of Sunday and carried on into Monday. The English have now won one of eight penalty shoot-outs: against Spain at Euro 96 - on home soil.
Their chief tormentor was the unflappable Andrea Pirlo, who was managed by Hodgson briefly at Inter Milan. Now 33, Pirlo, in his 87th international appearance, scored from the spot with an outrageously deft chip. With his ability to control the tempo and shape of the game, the Juventus midfielder was the counterpoint to England’s scurrying and desperation.
One of his equivalents, Scott Parker, performed beyond the limits of his talent here and was honest about that fact. He should not be disparaged for being less good than Pirlo. Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, captained England with great energy and conviction. Yet these two were finally overwhelmed by an Italian midfield more adept at keeping possession and using the ball.
England’s lamentable record in penalty shoot-outs suggests a congenital failure of technique and temperament. Ashley Young crashed his effort against the crossbar. Ashley Cole fired tamely into Gianluigi Buffon’s falling body. Alessandro Diamanti, once of West Ham, completed the execution. Anything else would have been larceny.
The 12-yard shoot-out merely confirmed the unmistakable lessons of the game. By the time Mario Balotelli placed the ball on the spot to beat Joe Hart people were already joking that England would have to play Germany at music, comedy, cricket or Association Costume Drama, as Armando Ianucci once suggested. At least they avoided Joachim Löw’s formidable Nationalmannschaft in Warsaw on Thursday.
In victories over Sweden and Ukraine, a draw with France and this deserved defeat to Italy, Hodgson stretched a thin squad to its limits and restored many lost qualities: unity, modesty, communication and a willingness to do more than mumble through the national anthem. But none of these advances make up for profligacy with the ball and players missing from 12 yards.
Humility had done its work and England’s likeability was repaired. So the country rose back up in hope and expectation as Hodgson’s men endeavoured to be more than a 4-4-2 team with a talent for muddling through. That proved beyond them.
With a forward line of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, Italy’s starting XI might have been picked by Sigmund Freud. Balotelli lectured his team-mates, kicked a goal post after missing from three-yards out and left the pitch at the interval moaning. When the Azzurri came back out, though, England were smacked around. Hodgson’s men had played a game of how-far-can-we-go? This far, was the answer.
Every detail here was familiar from St-Etienne, Lisbon and Gelsenkirchen: the gnawing sense that 58 years without a knock-out win against top-level opposition away from English soil might finally be ending. That was a ragged hope from half-time. Italy probed in their more flexible 4-1-3-2 formation but in the first-half England offered a reasonable advertisement for 4-4-1-1 by playing wider on the counter-attack.
Fabio Capello was spared the ambivalence of leading England into battle against his homeland by the stance he adopted over John Terry’s demotion as England captain. Would Don Fabio have engineered the downfall of mother Italy? England would have adopted the more fluid and modern formation Capello devised in the aftermath of the World Cup debacle; but the squad would have been stuck in the age of cultural awkwardness, without the ease and unity has Hodgson imparted to the camp.
The England manager has used substitutions around the hour-mark to good effect but when Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott stripped for action on 57 minutes it was out of desperation. Welbeck and Milner gave way. For nearly a quarter of an hour Italy had attacked with renewed venom and England were back into survival mode: a fashionable pose these days, but not one that often works often against the superpowers.
Sweden and Ukraine - maybe. An over-rated France - if you’re lucky. But in these knock-out games you play poker with the devil if you believe you can withstand Italian wisdom without the ball.
Gerrard and Parker were working another double shift against a mobile and denser Italian midfield. In the middle at this level, 4-4-2 puts a huge strain on the two in the centre. For Gerrard, Euro 2012 has been a chance to lead and inspire, transcend a disappointing club season with Liverpool and leave a mark on the international stage at last. After 71 minutes, he was on the turf, wincing and stretching his calf. A tactical consultation with Gary Neville followed, but with two substitutes already on there was little England could to dramatically alter the game’s ominous pattern.
Strength of character has enjoyed a wonderful spring and summer, with Chelsea and England. But here on eastern Europe’s new frontier clinging on started to look less like an art form and more a risky challenge to the gods.
Perspiration sought one more victory over inspiration. It failed. Now Hodgson is fully the England manager, not just an ageing sage who rushed to his country’s rescue at short notice - and he will need some good ideas to break this dismal cycle.