• Manager says he has learned from Euro 2012 exit
• ‘Italy will be well prepared and well organised’
Roy Hodgson had just been reminded about the passage in Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, when the Italian looked back to their time together at Internazionale and recounted how his former manager apparently used to mispronounce his name. According to Pirlo, Hodgson had a habit of calling him “Pirla,” much to the amusement of the other players and “perhaps understanding my true nature more than the other managers”. Pirla, for the uninitiated, is roughly the equivalent to “dickhead” in modern Italian.
“I think he might have used a bit of poetic licence there,” the multilingual Hodgson pointed out. “I used to call him Andrea, for the most part. I’m a Christian-name person and I don’t remember ever referring to him as Pirlo. But it is possible it could have been Pirla. It’s only the ‘o’ and the ‘a’, a minor thing. Certainly, he was anything but a pirla, that’s for sure.”
The irony is that Hodgson, as the interim manager before Marcello Lippi, did not fully seem to appreciate Pirlo’s gifts while at San Siro. “I felt a bit sorry for him because the squad was full of No10s. And, back then, he was a No10. Apart from [Roberto] Baggio, there was [Youri] Djorkaeff and Zé Elias, and a couple of others all vying with Paulo Sousa for the same position. So he didn’t play that much but he was very good in training and Carlo Ancelotti showed a stroke of genius with regards to Pirlo’s career.
“Inter let him go to Milan, which showed they didn’t fully believe in him, and it was Carlo who transformed him into a deep-lying midfield player, rather than a second centre-forward. That’s when he really started to blossom.”
Pirlo has cropped up in a lot of the conversations with Hodgson since he arrived in Brazil, bearing in mind what happened when England played Italy in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, culminating in the way Pirlo brilliantly put Joe Hart in his place during the penalty shootout. As Pirlo said at the time: “I saw their goalkeeper doing all sorts on the line. So I thought: OK, now I will give him the spoon.”
Hodgson put his players through their first session of practising penalties at the end of their latest workout at the Urca training ground. “For the fun of it,” he explained. Intriguingly, he chose to do this without a goalkeeper. A specially created goal was brought out with five different targets in the netting and the players had to nominate where they were aiming.
True to form, not everyone hit the back of the net, though Hodgson does already know his best five penalty-takers (providing they are on the pitch) should it reach that stage over the next few weeks: Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Rickie Lambert, Leighton Baines and Frank Lampard. “It’s not a difficult decision because we know who takes penalties for their clubs,” he said. “It’s an easy thing to do. We don’t need three weeks of preparation for that.”
A little bit of practice here and there is never a bad thing but, for now, the priority should be more about retaining the ball, and avoiding tiring themselves out by having to chase back in the heat of Manaus. Hodgson tends to dislike passing statistics, pointing out recently that the Crystal Palace player Kagisho Dikgacoi probably has a superior record to Gerrard “because Dikgacoi only passes the ball five yards back whereas Gerrard occasionally tries difficult passes”.
He did accept that England need to show more refinement when they have the ball. “The point is that we hope that our possession football leads somewhere. That will be the purpose to our possession football, as possession football for the sake of it doesn’t score you goals. It has to be possession football where you drag your opponents out of position and take advantage of it.”
The problem for England is that Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach, thinks in a similar way. “When [the former Internazionale president] Giacinto Facchetti was still alive, he told me he thought Prandelli was a really good coach,” Hodgson said. “That’s always stuck in my mind: that someone whom I respected as much as Facchetti picked him out among all the Italian coaches. Everything Prandelli has done with Italy and Fiorentina has proven that since. I certainly respect him. I think Italy will be going into the tournament thinking they can go far.
“They’ve stayed together very well [since reaching the final at Euro 2012]. We are still discussing, in our pre-match videos, the same players as back then. You could argue that’s a weakness but you could also argue that being together for another two years like that is a good thing. Whereas we have actually made quite a few changes to our team, they haven’t had to do that.
“Maybe they’ve got some Sterlings, Barkleys and Lallanas up their sleeve as well. I don’t really know. What we do know is they will be very well organised and well prepared and that the problems they caused us two years ago they can cause us again. We have to make sure our defensive organisation covers their threats and that our strengths find out their weaknesses. Most teams have weaknesses. The problem is finding them.”