England vs Italy: Passing, Pirlo & Penalties

Much has been written since England’s exit from the European Championship, with a significant focus upon the statistical dominance of Italy in terms of passing and shooting. I’ll not tread over old ground too much but I wanted to highlight one aspect that struck me during the match, which was later confirmed after looking at the statistics.

It struck me that England appeared to go long periods without having the ball at all. Below is a figure showing the number of passes attempted by Italy and England over the entire game in 5-minute chunks using data from Squawka. The striking thing is that England had several periods where they attempted fewer than 10 passes in 5 minutes. Incredibly, England only attempted 3 passes between the 55th to 60th minute. If that wasn’t shocking enough, they didn’t actually complete any of those 3 passes! Italy on the other hand, never dropped below 20 passes in 5 minutes.

Top graph: Number of attempted passes by England and Italy in their European Championship Quarter-Final as a function of time.
Bottom graph: Ratio of the number of passes attempted by Andrea Pirlo to the number of passes attempted by the whole Italian team against England.
Data is courtesy of Squawka.

England’s best periods tended to coincide with them actually having the ball a reasonable amount, especially in the first 30 minutes of the match. Overall though, Italy were generally well ahead of England in terms of passing.

Andrea Pirlo

Any piece mentioning passing in the England vs Italy game should reserve some mention for Andrea Pirlo and his impressive play-making performance. However, there is likely an element of Pirlo being allowed to put on such a performance. Indeed, his influence upon the game tended to ebb and flow, which is shown by the bottom graph in the figure above. This shows the percentage of Italy’s attempted passes made by Pirlo for each 5-minute portion of the match. In the first 15 minutes, Pirlo’s influence was rather low with only 5-10% of Italy’s passes being attempted by him. This grew to the point where close to 20% of Italy’s passing was going through Pirlo from the 25th to 35th minute. His involvement then dropped off again by grew steadily up to the 65th minute from which he maintained a high involvement apart from a short period in extra-time.

England clearly managed to negate Pirlo’s influence early in the match but this was not repeated later in the match. In the second half of normal time and in extra time, about 1 in every 6 of Italy’s passes went through Pirlo. This allowed Pirlo the opportunity to dictate the game, culminating with his extraordinary penalty kick.

9/10ths of the law

 I don’t regard possession statistics as showing who is a good or bad team [but] we know we need to be better with the ball. That is where we have to keep working.

Hodgson has a point about possession in the above quote. However, England’s apparent disregard for the ball and/or inability to regain it made life very difficult for them against Italy. In order to score, you do need the ball at least a reasonable amount and be efficient with it, which was illustrated in the second half of extra time as England completed only 8 passes out of 20 and had zero shots on goals. England demonstrated in the group stage that it is possible to be successful with about 40% of the ball but at times they had less than 10% against Italy.

At least Hodgson has admitted that there is a problem in this regard. Whether he is the man to solve it is an entirely different matter.

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