England have reached the Quarter Finals and now have an Italian hurdle between them and the final. Judging by Hodgson's reactive tendencies and experience in Italian football they are going to have a clear plan, (il piano in Italian). Once famed for their defensive qualities, this current Italian side is lacking in its stereotypical World Class defenders. In fact, unlike the sides of old, the team lacks any established world-class players except Pirlo, Buffon and, arguably, De Rossi. What they do have, however, are options.
Italy have a good selection of players with no particularly weak or strong areas but what they do lack is width. In the first two games they overcame this by adopting a 3-5-2 formation similar to that often used by Juventus this season and featuring several of these Juventus players in the same roles as at club level. Alternatively, against Ireland the Italians adopted the 4-3-1-2 favoured by AC Milan. The only real difference between these formations is whether the side plays with a 3rd central defender or a trequartista between the midfield band of 3 and the front 2. The roles of the 2 wide players alter slightly between being wing backs and full backs but the midfield band of 3, which is the key to the side, remains unchanged. As a result, defensively England’s main focus should be upon disrupting Pirlo and limiting his influence upon the game.
Pirlo is by far Italy’s best player on the ball and his role is the same in either formation as the deep-lying playmaker between 2 more mobile midfielders known as shuttlers or carrileros. The key to disrupting Pirlo is to pay him constant attention, he is not the most mobile player, however, due to his deep role he can be difficult to pressure. England can learn from Croatia in this area. In the Croatia game Bilic altered his side’s shape at half time in order to place Modric up against Pirlo. This allowed him to close Pirlo down quickly and restrict his influence as well as allowing Modric to move away and find space more easily when Croatia were in possession, something reflected in Modric’s 2 shots, 59 touches and 48 passes (the highest on the Croatian side). England, hopefully, can look to recreate this by asking Rooney to watch Pirlo, something Rooney attempted to do against Busquets in the 2011 Champions League Final.
Italy are far from free-scoring and England can try to put them under pressure, particularly in wide areas. The models for this approach are the Champions League second leg between Arsenal and AC Milan this season and the Second Leg between Chelsea and Napoli in the same competition. In both games the English side were able to use their numerical advantage out wide. Chelsea did this with Sturridge and Ramires out wide rather than proper wingers. Michael Cox at Zonal Marking highlights that, since Lavezzi played high up the pitch, “Napoli had little protection, with Walter Gargano forced to move across to that side. If he couldn’t, then the wing-back would move up the pitch and deal with the danger, and the relevant centre-back would move across into the full-back position.”
This involves drawing a centre back out wide or a central midfielder out there, creating space in the centre either way. Similarly, Arsenal placed an emphasis upon running at the Milan full-backs, an approach that was successful both in an attacking sense and in pinning back these players and making Milan even narrower than usual.
A - This is the most likely formation for either side and represents the dream scenario for England. I'd personally choose Carroll as the target for crosses as England look to exploit the space out wide. The Italian wing backs will be forced deep to cover Young and Walcott, leaving Cole and Johnson free, or will have to leave them to the outer centre backs, leaving Italy without a spare man at the back. Either of these represents a clear advantage for England as they offer an attacking threat while nullifying Italy's midfield by going man for man.
B - If italy move to their alternative formation this represents a real problem for England. Even if Rooney marks Pirlo, Parker and Gerrard are outnumbered by the other 3 Italian midfielders (most likely Motta, De Rossi and Marchisio). Walcott and Young are easier to cover as the wing backs are now full backs and Cole and Johnson, while free, are unable to move upfield due to the numerical disadvatange in the centre of the pitch.
C - This is a very unlikely option but it's the one I would choose to react with. The two carrileros in the Italian system mainly offer energy and vertical movement, therefore they are suitable to being tracked by Gerrard and Milner who also offer energy and are a threat in attack as well. Rooney still marks Pirlo but instead of playing as a second striker he is in a role more focussed on playmaking. His job is not to be a direct goal threat but to feed Young and Walcott who look to find space behind Italy by playing as wide forwards rather than wingers. There is virtually no chance Hodgson would play this way as it offers no guarantee of sucess, means a switch to an untested system, moves from his preferred two banks of four and involves not playing a true striker.
With Chiellini likely to be out Italy can either play Barzagli alongside De Rossi and Bonucci at centre back, or move to their alternative 4-3-1-2 formation. Unfortunately for England I think the latter is more likely as that was Prandelli's choice for the game against the Irish who play a similar 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 to England.