It had been coming. England could lament the cruel timing of the goals — and they did — but France had been the better team. They’d seen more of the ball, taken more shots, and completed more of their passes than England. Now, belatedly, they’d scored more goals than England as well. Central to all of that, metaphorically and positionally, was the man France had grown so used to hanging their highest hopes upon. The richly accomplished Zinedine Zidane.
A game in which Frank Lampard’s goal before the break had long looked like being England’s undeserved winner had now been turned on its head. Zidane’s majestic free-kick, followed by his textbook penalty, had condemned Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men to a bitter defeat in their Euro 2004 opener. But while it was the goals that wrote the headlines, Zidane’s involvement in France’s build-up play in the centre of midfield had shown what this player was really about. Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes could get nowhere near him all afternoon. A marker of just how far into world-class the Real Madrid man was at the time. They slide-tackled him, shadowed him and at times even doubled up on him. But Zinedine Yazid Zidane was always one step ahead — sometimes two or three.Embed from Getty Images
France won and topped the group ahead of England, who recovered well to thrash Croatia and Switzerland to their credit. But both then crashed out in the next round to inferior opposition, on paper at least.
So began a precedent of England falling prey to midfield maestros picking them apart incidental pass by incidental pass. Consider the 2006 FIFA World Cup final between France and eventual winners Italy a sort of handing over of the reins. This was the day that Zidane passed on the baton to Andrea Pirlo — the quintessential string-pulling midfielder.
So began a precedent of England falling prey to midfield maestros picking them apart incidental pass by incidental pass.
Pirlo and England first met at Euro 2012 at the quarter-final stage. Roy Hodgson had taken over from interim coach Stuart Pearce just three weeks before the finals and had surprised many by ensuring England finished top of a group featuring France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine. Italy, meanwhile, had been second-best in their group to the wonderful Spain side of the time, who eventually hammered them in the most one-sided final in the competition’s history.Embed from Getty Images
When Gerrard and Scott Parker came up against the peerless Pirlo, form went out the window. For 120 long minutes, Pirlo orchestrated play sedately. A misplaced pass was a collector’s item. He parked himself behind the flat forward-line of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, bringing his full-backs into play, rotating to find angles and picking out the occasional long ball with infallible accuracy.
Italy somehow wouldn’t find the breakthrough in either normal or extra-time. But England and penalty shootouts — at least at the time — mixed about as well as oil and water. Pirlo, by stark contrast, oozes class and always has done. The current Juventus manager spent the three years between his retirement as a player and his emergence as a coach focusing full-time on his vineyard. Of course he has a vineyard. Pirlo dinked the most audacious of Panenka penalties past a nonplussed Joe Hart in the shootout, capping off a quite masterful performance with the match’s greatest moment of all. England were out. Pirlo was why.
On 6 December 2013, Hodgson’s England were drawn in the group of death at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. There they would play fellow former winners Italy and Uruguay and also Costa Rica. The England–Italy rematch was both sides’ tournament opener this time, and took place in the sizzling Amazonian city of Manaus. Yet one factor remained entirely the same as their clash two years prior. Andrea Pirlo, now 35, was still the composer, dictating the way the better side closed in on another tournament win over England.Embed from Getty Images
It was Pirlo’s intelligent dummy that allowed the space for his midfield partner Claudio Marchisio to fire in the opening goal from range. And in the fourth minute of stoppage time and with the match’s final chance, Pirlo cut across the ball so nicely that his 35-yard free-kick struck the crossbar of a stranded Hart quite improbably. Defeat to the Uruguayans five days later sent Hodgson’s men crashing out again.
England were next outsmarted by a midfielder operating at the highest level during their spirited run at the 2018 World Cup. Gareth Southgate’s side, often so fast out of the blocks, were exactly that against surprise semi-finalists Croatia. By the 45th minute, it had all been England. Kieran Trippier’s memorable free-kick opened the scoring in the fifth minute, but Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard should all have extended the Three Lions’ lead in the minutes after Trippier’s wonderstrike. They couldn’t take their chances.Embed from Getty Images
The final opportunity of the half fell to the Croatians and to Luka Modrić — the Balkan answer to a seasoned midfield veteran like Pirlo. This one didn’t find the net, but it was a sign of things to come. Southgate’s young creators started to tire and fade in the second half. Modrić was there to take the match to England with effortless running. He controlled proceedings in just the way England have wanted a player of their own to be able to do for decades. There have been tireless shuttlers like Gerrard and Lampard, and cultured playmakers like Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle. But never a player of Modrić’s ilk — calm, collected, capable and (critically) played in a position that allows him to be those things. Decades of stale 4-4-2 football didn’t allow it.
Like in Pirlo’s displays, it wasn’t Modrić who put England to the sword personally, but without his tempo-setting, England would probably have reached the World Cup final at the expense of his beloved Croatia. Jordan Henderson was good — and is now even better — but England needed a Modrić that day, needed one against the Netherlands a year later, and could still very much do with one now.
That encounter against the Dutch came at the inaugural Nations League finals, after England had topped a well-matched group containing Spain and Modrić’s Croatia. The match came just five days after an all-English Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham, which included a number of Southgate’s most valuable assets. The England manager made a decision to bench every single player involved in that final, but one suspects the fresh-faced No 8 Frenkie de Jong would have run the match even if they’d started.Embed from Getty Images
De Jong had just turned 22 but he dictated play as if he’d been commanding his team from the middle of the park for a decade or more. England’s midfield trio of Declan Rice, Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley battled solidly on the night, but they lacked the invention and guile that De Jong offered Holland. England’s late winner from Lingard was disallowed for the most marginal of marginal offsides, and then two calamitous mistakes at the back in extra-time condemned England to defeat. The Netherlands reached the final — England’s wait for a first major competition final since 1966 went on. And still they wait.
But are these sorts of players really as valuable in 2020? Hasn’t football moved past the slow, methodical, possession-based style of play? It is true that in recent years managers of the best teams have grown tired of facing packed final thirds and have instead assembled players who can swiftly and efficiently put games to bed on the counter. England — with Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling and many others — are blessed in that regard.Embed from Getty Images
However, when faced with the choice between having a world-class tempo-setting, string-pulling midfielder and not having one, the more desirable option is abundantly clear. Especially since moving to a 3-4-3 system with a flat midfield two and less emphasis on counterattacking, England are crying out for a Zidane, a Pirlo, a Modrić or a De Jong.
Southgate’s options in goal are many, if not top-class; in central defence, the situation is much the same. But if you could buy players in international football — if Southgate could buy only one — he’d be mad not to splash out on a top deep-lying playmaker. Having suffered at the hands of so many of them in recent years, England know a first-rate one is worth his weight in gold.