Heat and Pirlo will stifle England
With some justification, the English media are describing England's rematch with Italy, two years after the Azzurri dumped the Three Lions out of Euro 2012, as a contest against Andrea Pirlo, and Andrea Pirlo alone.
It's a measure of Pirlo's influence upon that clash in Kiev two years ago; a recognition of his ability to conduct the game from his classic deep-lying position and knock excellent long passes over the top of the England defence, too. England were already overloaded in the centre of midfield, with Italy's diamond dominating that part of the pitch against Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, and a clear problem was Wayne Rooney's inability, or simple refusal, to mark Juventus' regista.
England haven't been dominated by a single opponent to that extent for years -- probably since Rui Costa assisted three goals to help Portugal overturn a 2-0 deficit and record a 3-2 win at Euro 2000. It takes a lot for the English tabloids to focus upon an Italian other than Mario Balotelli, but Pirlo's display managed it.
Midway through the first half of that game, Roy Hodgson came across to the touchline to shout some instructions to Rooney, while Joe Hart was straight to the point -- as was required, considering the goalkeeper was 50 yards away. "Wazza!" he shouted. "Piiiiiirlo!" Sometimes, you don't need positions, adjectives or prepositions -- it's just a simple matter of screaming the name of your teammate, and the name of the player he's supposed to be marking.
Ahead of the rematch, Hodgson has various options for nullifying Pirlo. He could again trust Rooney in that role, he could swap Rooney and Danny Welbeck, who performed an excellent man-marking role on Xabi Alonso in the Champions League last year, or he could even move Jordan Henderson forward from his position alongside Steven Gerrard, although that remains unlikely.
Hodgson has been careful not to reveal his plans, and has spoken more generally about how England will stop Pirlo. "First of all, we're going to play better against Italy this time than we did in Euro 2012," he said earlier this week. "Of course, against a tiring team and a team that was playing with Pirlo, he had a very, very good game because he's a very, very good player ... we'll play with more energy because it will be the first game in the tournament. We'll be even more compact than we were in that game."
This is all simply fluff to avoid actually naming who will be tasked with stopping Pirlo, which is understandable. But this battle is basically a microcosm of the overall tactical war, which isn't about Player A versus Player B, but about two completely contrasting football styles.
There has been a homogenisation of football tactics over the past quarter century, owing to the greater movement across borders of players and coaches, plus the increasing impact of satellite television and the Internet.
Nevertheless, differences in style remain, and one of the best examples is the difference between England and Italy in terms of tempo. Besides, these are two countries whose footballers generally remain at home: 22 of England's 23-man squad are based in England (the other, Fraser Forster, is in Scotland), while Italy have just three foreign-based players: Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Salvatore Sirigu are all at PSG.
Therefore, the two squads are accustomed to entirely different types of matches. The Premier League is the blood-and-thunder, 100 mph football that boasts of its "excitement" and "action" rather than its outright quality. Italian football remains slower, more patient, more thoughtful, more tactical.
Therefore, the Pirlo conundrum perfectly sums up the contrast in style -- Pirlo is an incredibly methodical, intelligent playmaker, with a lack of outright pace and an aversion to winning possession his only weaknesses. Henderson, for example, is the precise opposite type of midfielder -- he's all about energy. To Pirlo, a player like this is alien. When Park Ji-Sung played a man-marking role on him in a European Cup match, Pirlo complained that Park "must be the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron ... he'd look at the ball and not know what it was for."
In Gianluca Vialli's excellent book, "The Italian Job" (a collaboration with Gabriele Marcotti), he discusses many anecdotal differences between England and Italy. But when exploring exactly why the two styles are so different, he pinpointed climate as a key feature, and focuses particularly on wind.
Vialli quotes Arsene Wenger, saying, "The wind ruins everything. It forces you to do only one type of exercise. It forces you to work on either speed or continuous movement. It's very rare that you get the chance to sit calmly and work on technique or on tactics ... it begins way back when players are children." Of course, there are other huge differences in climate, in terms of rain and temperature.
There are many other reasons for the difference in style -- Vialli's main message throughout the book is that Italian footballers regard playing football as a job, English footballers think of it as a hobby.
But Vialli's emphasis upon climate is crucial considering Saturday's match will be played in the astonishingly difficult surroundings of Manaus. The temperature will be high, the humidity will be unbearable and while it will be new surroundings for both sides, it's easy to imagine Italy adapting much better, both stylistically and physically (the two, of course, are related).
This makes it worrying, from an English perspective, that Hodgson says England's approach will be about "playing with more energy." There's something refreshing about his insistence England should emphasise their strengths rather than worrying about their weaknesses, but the fact remains we simply don't know how much energy England will have after an hour. Playing with more energy in the first half might prompt a second-half collapse, as Italy's patience -- and Pirlo's methodical midfield play -- prove more effective over a long period.
This would fit the pattern of England's first games at major international competitions. They've opened the scoring in their last nine tournaments (World Cups and European championships) but have only won two of these contests.
England come flying out of the traps, but get exhausted before the finish line. England against Italy is essentially football's version of the hare and the tortoise fable -- and we know which animal is more natural in the middle of the Amazon.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.