Part one – Andrea Pirlo, L’architetto
For one to recognise that Italian football is currently in a lull takes no great investigation. Two first round exits at consecutive World Cups have been the utmost disappointment to fans of the great footballing nation. Like the style of football or not, Italy has carved out four World Cup titles in its history. Given that Italy have been this successful being the masters of Catenaccio (or The Chain) then it must come as bitter irony that once they now look to be far more attack minded and pleasing to watch they have seemingly lost the ability to make it out of the group stages. However, defensive powerhouses or not Italy has produced a few of the best attacking players in history, of which Roberto Baggio stands aloft the peak. This generation has been ruled by three and their reign is slowly winding down. All different players that have taken a different route down the years, they are brought together by two things, an improbable World Cup triumph and their individual genius.
The first in this series is the blasé Andrea Pirlo. He is the man that makes a mockery of the myth that the quick, physical midfielder is the only possible way to go. The Allen Iverson of football seems to make time stand still as the game bends to his will. Pirlo justifiably is seen as one of the best in his generation alongside Xavi Hernandez, Steven Gerrard, Zinedine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, and Paul Scholes. Now, he doesn’t have the metronomic diligence of Xavi, nor is he the physical beast that is Stevie G. Pirlo is like no other and that brings it downsides, but it also brings one of the classiest and best players ever to adorn an Italy jersey.
What can possibly make one not blessed with athleticism that good? He’s slow, not physical, doesn’t tackle well but he is so good. Pirlo never relied on speed or physicality and quite frankly, he never needed it. Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said that Charlie Adam’s set pieces are worth £10m. If that is true, and that could have been arguably true at the time, then Pirlo’s are priceless. His free kicks and corners aren’t fizzled in with laser-like pace. They are rather more of the slow travelling homing missile variety from all of three toes. It’s no coincidence that he’s this good that even his misses are sublime (World Cup 2014 against England anyone?). Even the greats take inspiration and learn from others. Indeed, Pirlo spent countless hours learning from and adapting aspects from one probably even better at set pieces, the Brazilian Juninho (and Roberto Baggio during his spell at Brescia for good measure). Pirlo himself jokingly called himself Pirlinho and with good reason. The grace that we know as being characteristically Pirlo is reminiscent of the Brazilian Ronaldinho, an association only one who knows his game inside out would make. Pirlo’s football does have Brazilian characteristics and how they both make football look easy is something to behold.
The Italian has the ability to execute the most exquisite of passes from seemingly nothing. That he can do it is not the marvel but it is rather how he does it that makes him the man he is. That calm, almost indifference with which he flicks his hair then pulls off the most ridiculous free kick or defence splitting long pass is what makes him Pirlo. His same nonchalance is also his greatest downfall as he is not a particularly good defender. He has to be protected even from a deep lying midfield role; but he is worth that sacrifice. If it means that a Danielle de Rossi or Gennaro Gattuso has to be his right hand man then so be it. All the other greats too had their flaws and that is what makes them human. Their ability to constantly be footballing geniuses despite those shortcomings is what truly makes them stand above.
Deep lying maestro
There are contemporary players in which we see some of the great man in. Luka Modric, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Michael Carrick, and the man being groomed as his heir in the Italian team, Marco Verratti, come to mind. His own similarity to the other two in this series, Alessandro Del Piero, and Francesco Totti is in their artistry at set pieces and to Totti in the ridiculous execution of the panenka penalty.
Never one to shy away from the big occasion, some of his best moments have come later in his career on the biggest stage. His performances in the 2006 World Cup and the Euros of 2012 will be an exclamation point on what has been a stellar career. He stands amongst the very best of his generation, and he did so sipping wine in true Pirlinho style.