Towards the end of extra-time in England's quarter-final against Italy in Kiev one veteran voice of many international tournaments could be heard musing aloud: "It's as though there's only one actual footballer on the pitch." No prizes for guessing who: Andrea Pirlo, from a strolling start, ended up dominating England's midfield, maintaining the same stately pace through the entire 120 minutes, sure in the knowledge that as others dissipated their energies his own gentler tempo would rise above the hubbub.
By the end the oldest outfield player on the pitch was guiding his gently malevolent passes about the pitch, and drifting around with that upright assertive jog that seems to say: Enough, this is how we're going to do this now. There's a grown-up in the room.
Pirlo completed more passes in the match than England's whole midfield put together, but it was a textural difference as much as a statistical one: watching England take possession of the ball felt a bit like being exposed suddenly to the Olympic Stadium's deafening half-time PA system – a painful assault of panic-inducing Euro-disco – when all you really wanted was a little peace, a moment of Pirlo.
Italy's deep-lying playmaker has already been roundly praised, but perhaps we should not go completely overboard. In the media, both social and professional, there has been a degree of reverential astonishment at his performance, a reaction vaguely reminiscent of a group of mediaeval villagers catching their first glimpse of a captured Romanian bear. Pirlo is a very good player: he has been a key influence in teams that have won the World Cup and the Champions League. But the fact is, once the initial frenzy of space-cramping energy had died down, England were perfect opposition for him. No doubt Pirlo would like to pack this England team up in his calfskin luggage set and carry them around with him for the rest of this tournament. Germany will no doubt provide a less obviously flattering reflection, keeping the ball themselves a little and making Pirlo wait and work for the chance to slide those wonderfully delicate passes across the pitch.
The fact remains that one old, slow very talented man was enough to expose the cracks, large and small, in whatever it is England are still hoping will happen when they play international football. There were mistakes on the night, a failure to counter the space Pirlo was finding in an unfamiliar position. Danny Welbeck sprinted back and robbed him once and Wayne Rooney stood in the same pocket of space quite often, but passed up the chance to perform a Park Ji-sung style marking job.
It is of course a wider problem that Pirlo threw a light on, not just the odd misplaced pass but a failure that spreads through the boot and back up the leg. What was exposed above all was an absence of even a touch of Pirlo in England's 23-man staff. For one night only Italy's playmaker really was the only unicorn in the county. There hasn't been a similar England player for many years. Paul Gascoigne kept possession brilliantly when the mood was right, even towards his skinny-legged end: Gazza effectively did a Pirlo on Italy in Rome in 1997. Glenn Hoddle springs to mind. Perhaps Ray Wilkins might have been well-suited to the modern game.
And Paul Scholes is the obvious current equivalent. Perhaps he might have even done a similar job over the last three years or so, but only if the rest of the team could be taught to play at his tempo, to rally around his gifts of ball-manipulation. In some ways Scholes is an excellent example of becoming a better international footballer the longer you stay retired: played out of position, asked to chase and harry, Scholes never really got on with England and tournaments.
Either way, this is what football has become, a business of holding and transferring possession of the ball. Pirlo may have something austere and ancient in his bearing, but he is in fact jauntily state of the art. Whereas for England there is an intriguing reversal of energies in the new style of football. These days it is only in possession of the ball that teams get a chance to rest and take a breath. And so where England were once the most physically resilient and energetic of teams, they are now invariably the most exhausted, a team ill-equipped with the technical skills that lessen the physical burden, who are effectively attempting to climb the mountain twice, every handhold a quivering fingernail grip.
Once tiredness sets in the basic skills start to fade. Rooney may be England's best player but in the second half in Kiev his touch was noticeably inferior to that of Italy's right-back. For the same reason Gerrard, a player of marvellous explosive moments, seems close to being on his last legs at this level, whereas the frugal Pirlo looks like he could play until he's 40.
Even as penalty shootouts go, Italy's triumph in Kiev was revealing. When England's players talk about shootouts being a matter of "luck" they are, understandably, being kind to their team-mates who have missed their kick. But penalties are not about luck. They are about technique and confidence. Ashley Young and Ashley Cole were not unlucky, but instead failed at a basic skill. Whereas – him again – Pirlo's penalty was the outstanding moment in the game, a dinked Panenka hit with remarkable drop-shot backspin. Pirlo later said he wanted to make a statement with his penalty. If this is true it worked: Young thrashed at his like a man, if not exactly spooked, then required to provide a riposte.
The shootout was also a fair reflection of what had happened in the match once England's early bursts had receded. By the end they looked like a team who had turned up at a chess match armed with a fistful of rocks. Pirlo will rightly take the laurels for this. For England the challenge – and it is a familiar one – is not to practise penalties, or to work harder when the opposition has the ball. It is to foster and above all willingly accept the growing pains of players with similar skills. England does produce players who can pass the ball. What is needed – and this is not an imminent prospect – is a shift of mentality, a slowing down at all levels, above all the willingness to tolerate the odd moment of Pirlo-like calm.