Euro 2012: Breaking the Andrea Pirlo Code

pirlo

At the turn of the century, Andrea Pirlo, the bright young hope of Italian football, led the Italian under-21 team to European glory. Playing behind the strikers as a “trequartista”, Pirlo was one of the best players of the tournament, contributing with a number of assists and goals. His exploits as captain, didn’t fail to go unnoticed as managers across Italy earmarked him as the next great no.10 to don the blue of Italy. Life was seemingly nice and sunny for young Andrea; he completed a dream move to Inter Milan but in three years at the club, he failed to make the breakthrough. Because ahead of him, competing in the same position, he found the celestial Roberto Baggio – one of the finest playmakers all time – and as a result, Pirlo was loaned back out to his first club, Brescia.

Shunted and abandoned, it looked like was all doom and gloom for one of Italy’s great young talents. But little did he know that all these events would lead to quite possibly the most important conversation of his life with Carlo Mazzone, the coach at Brescia at the time. This is how the conversation unfolded, in the words of Mazzone:  “I was managing Brescia when Pirlo still considered himself a “mezzapunta” (attacking midfielder). I told him to play in front of the defenders, because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’ “I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terrified! Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”

Twelve years later and Andrea Pirlo is considered as one of the greatest players of his generation. In his position as the deep-lying playmaker (or base playmaker as Mazzone likes to call it), he is almost peerless, performing the role in a way that must be considered unique in the modern game. But what is it precisely that he does which makes him the supreme playmaker right now? Below, Karthik Venkatesh (KV) tries to decipher the “Andrea Pirlo Code”.

Analysing Andrea Pirlo’s role

Andrea Pirlo is a smart man. He uses his strengths to add his own spin to the deepest midfielder role. He possesses arguably the game’s best long ball, unparalleled vision and a sophisticated technique. Despite being the deepest midfielder, he bagged the most number of assists in Serie A (13) for Juventus last season. As soon as he receives the ball, Pirlo begins a mini-game, where the objective is to provide the pass that finds his teammates with a large amount of space and less number of opponents to get past. He starts a routine process that involves the following:

  1. Technique: Pirlo started out behind the strikers and a pre-requisite for playing in the hole is high technical ability. He uses this to hold on to the ball and assess passing options on the move. Zbigniew Boniek, the former Poland player and coach, who is definitely in awe of Pirlo’s ability to not lose the ball, says,”To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.”

  2. Pirlo finds a way out when he is pressed: When being closed down, if he is unable to create space for himself or his teammates through dribbling, he uses the short pass wisely and chooses the safest pass. Being the key player in the team’s midfield, he often attracts more than one opponent and he immediately finds a free player close by. He doesn’t retard the flow and keeps the ball circulation going. But beware, Pirlo sacrifices a marginal drop in passing percentage to try and attempt adventurous passes over the top. That is probably the greatest difference between Pirlo and the other deep-midfielders. (Pirlo has completed 354 of his 459 attempted passes (77%), and has a forward passing accuracy of 76%).

  3. The long ball is his deadliest weapon: Once he finds space even for a split second, he is lethal and doesn’t miss the opportunity to use the long ball to set up one-on-one situations for the striker. He is probably the quickest in the world to spot a run from his teammates. Against England, Pirlo attempted a staggering 30 long balls!

  4. The master of the switch: Pirlo switches play to the wings excellently. One of his common moves against England was the pass to Federico Balzaretti down the left flank (who surprisingly found lots of space as England neglected pressing the full backs high up). They are highly effective in that the player who receives the ball finds himself in oodles of space and generally encounters at most one opponent facing him directly. “Today, I’d say the greatest passer is Juventus’s Andrea Pirlo,” says Sandro Mazzola for Champions Magazine. “His footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see. Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.” And as an interesting aside note, he adds: “It fills me with pride  – and pains me a little – to recall that I spotted him when he was just a teenager at Brescia Calcio and convinced Internazionale  Milano to sign him up.”

  5. Assists the assister: Other than having the highest number of assists in Serie A, Pirlo will most probably also have the highest number of ‘pass before an assist.’ He is always on the look-out for the pass that will empower his teammates and lead to a goal.

  6. Chance creator: Andrea Pirlo is a high C.Q.I chance creator. His pass to Balotelli against England was one of the highest we have ever recorded.

  7. Goal scorer: One must not forget that Pirlo is a high caliber free kick taker and he also has a great shot that can beat the best of keepers.

Here is a flow chart which roughly summarizes Pirlo’s game:

pirlo flowchart

How do you stop Andrea Pirlo?

To completely isolate and nullify Pirlo’s impact is close to impossible. But what can be done is mark him closely and deny him the space to exert his game. As you can see from the flow chart, you can limit him to safe short passes by restricting the amount of space he gets (like how Park Ji Sung did for Manchester United in their 4-0 win in 2010), but he will still hurt you by quickly circulating the ball and getting it to players further forward. Pirlo has his downsides too. He’s not so physical built as modern footballers are these days so there is an incline that he can be pushed aside by far stronger teams. Nevertheless, he almost always negates this with an amazing balance and ability to shield away multiple opponents at once off the ball (at times, bordering on nonchalance).  Pirlo’s defensive contribution in terms of tackles and interceptions is modest at best, but one must take into account that he is shrewd when it comes to positioning and does a great job just by occupying the space in front of defenders. Against Spain in the final, Pirlo will obviously see far less of the ball, but he will be a dangerous threat on the counter with his ability to hit long passes behind Spain’s high line.

Perhaps the best chance of negating Pirlo is not to focus on him individually but to try and disrupt the team’s fluency, hence breaking up his effectiveness. Spain are probably the best at doing this as they hound the opposition once they lose the ball and often Pirlo is the one who receives it first. But it’s their brilliant defensive shape which doesn’t get the attention it deserves because through the use of through-marking to aid their pressing, they are fantastic at stopping opponents find their man.

Why don’t more teams use a Pirlo-esque player in deep-midfield?

There aren’t many players in the world who have the skill set that Andrea Pirlo possesses. To use those skills in a deep position and still exert total control over the game requires a great understanding of the role and few players can match him in that regard. Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes spring to mind, but they have far fewer assists when compared to Pirlo and they are more of instigators, whereas Pirlo is well and truly the  playmaker of the team. Another caveat is that, Pirlo usually requires players like Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and De Rossi (who has been splendid this tournament, possibly Italy’s second most important player) to do the defensive job and offer drive higher up the pitch. Pirlo is only as good as his midfield partners. (To add to that, Italy use a “magic square” formation in the middle which is exclusive to specific midfield functions. As Michael Cox notes, the player who is expected to be the “trequartista”, Ricardo Montolivio, is not and is asked by Cesare Prandelli to get back to make an extra central midfielder in defence).

At Arsenal, we have many players who can perform that role. Denilson, once described by Le Boss as a cross between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto Silva is talented enough to play that role. Besides being suspect in his positioning, he has a long way to go as he doesn’t quite have the vision and long passing required to be the playmaker of the team. Mikel Arteta has proven to be one of the best midfielders of the season and Alex Song has shown that he too is more than capable of doing the job, with his dribbling, and who can forget those exquisite chipped passes over the top for Robin van Persie. But the best bet is our very own ‘Spanish’ player, Jack Wilshere who possesses all the required attributes like vision, technique, passing, positioning and quick decision making to succeed in that role. But is it an intelligent decision to not use his skills higher up the pitch? Probably not, but he is the closest Arsenal can get to Andrea Pirlo, the most stylish and yet, the most important player in the world.

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On days three and four of Euro 2012…strikerless Spain and false nines

There is a fine line between a midfielder playing out of position as a striker – as Tim Cahill has done frequently for Everton in recent seasons – and a false nine. On Sunday, in their 1-1 draw against Italy, Spain did neither. Vicente Del Bosque instead chose to pack his team with creative midfielders, in a system which can be vaguely described as 4-6-0, in the bid to try and keep possession to pull Italy out of shape. And the Azzurri themselves played a novel formation, choosing three defenders – although given it’s popularity in Serie A, it wasn’t wholly unexpected – one of those being the holding midfielder, Daniele De Rossi. “I was a bit worried when I saw Spain were playing without a real striker,” said De Rossi. “I thought it would have been more difficult for me without a reference.”

Initially, it was easy as Spain passed and probed patiently without much penetration but as indicated by the fleet-footedness of brilliant Andrés Iniesta, the only way to break through would be through an injection of urgency. And they got it through Cesc Fábregas, although they had to fall behind first, getting beyond the Italy defence for practically the first time, after a fine flick by David Silva to score. “Fábregas is a very special midfielder,” Vicente Del Bosque said. “He’s not really a centre forward and has great llegada” (the ability to arrive late in the box).

It was France, in Monday’s 1-1 draw with England, who also could be described as playing without an orthodox centre-forward, although in this case, Karim Benzema is traditionally a striker. However, as his natural tendencies incline him to move backwards instead of forwards, it might be better off describing his role as a false nine. At club level, for Real Madrid, his movement out wide opens up space for the wide forward, Crisitano Ronaldo. For France, he’s as much a part of the build up play as he is a scorer and against England, his role was to drag the defenders out to make space for his team-mates – in a scenario not too unfamiliar to Spain’s against Italy. And while the idea was not incorrect –  because as Michael Cox notes for the Guardian, the goal by Samir Nasri highlighted England’s weaknesses in defending against players who operate “between-the-lines” – the wider issue was the underlying conservatism of the two coaches which ultimately forced them to relinquish a win.

Vicente Del Bosque reacted more progressively but Laurent Blanc chose to try and better what they were already doing. On came two more creative midfielders instead of the tall, towering presence of striker, Oliver Giroud. Del Bosque’s changes, though, did stretch Italy’s defence and should have won the game for them but Fernando Torres, put through on goal thrice, was thwarted by his demons each time. By the same token, Spain were now vulnerable to the counter-attack, something which avoiding, seems to be Del Bosque’s primary objective. Passing it endlessly, and it’s easy to see why on the basis of their performance, it continues to be misunderstood, was a mechanism to achieve that.

In the final matches of day three and four, though, Ireland against Croatia and Ukraine and Sweden, showed the virtues of proper strikers although it was the number tens instead the nines who got the goals – those strikers playing just deeper than the main striker. Mario Mandžukić found the net twice in Croatia’s 3-1 win over Ireland although not just his finishing, it was his work-rate which caught the eye. Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t inspire his side to a win although he was superb and his role was somewhat different to both Mandžukić’s and Andriy Shevchenko – whose brace won it for Ukraine – as he tends to play-make more than the two. In that sense, it more closely resembles  Wayne Rooney’s role for Manchester United (which is somewhat wrongly described as a false ten because, as far as I have seen, it’s an almost unique position at club level. Rooney tends to operate in a fixed area and is United’s main goalscorer despite playing behind an orthodox striker).

The lack of natural number nines might not traditionally be attributed to attacking football but Euro 2012 has so far proved the opposite. And despite the nuances of Spain and Italy’s style, it’s so far the benchmark for the game of the tournament.

On the first day of Euro 2012…non-goalscoring number nines and Arshavin

1.Who says number nines have to score?

When Aleksandr Kerzhakov screwed a shot wide on 70 minutes, it confirmed to everyone what they already knew; that he was going to be replaced. With the effort, he carried the unwanted – and previously unknown – distinction of being the first player in Euro history since records began, to attempt the most shots without hitting the target. But that shouldn’t mask what other good he did for the team. Granted, when Roman Pavlyuchenko entered the pitch in his place, he went more than one better, creating and scoring the two goals to make it a rout. But before that, Kerzhakov continually dragged the Czech defence and his tireless movement helped create space for the midfielders to run into.

I predicted before the tournament that the highest goalscorer will be a player who doesn’t conventionally operate as a number 9 before unwisely, at least, judging by this showing, go for Kerzhakov. But how much of Kerzhakov’s role consists of playing as a traditional number 9? Because it’s expected goals in Dirk Advocaat’s system come from all over – and certainly they broke with speed in midfield to support Kerzhakov – with Alan Dzagoev getting two, the second of which was created by Pavlyuchenko. Roman Shirokov got the other as a pass from Arshavin eluded Kerzhakov and trickled it’s way to him. In the other group game, Greece’s goal – after going down to ten men – was always planned to come from Dimitris Salpingidis as coach Fernando Santos, had him darting off from the right-flank at every opportunity. He also created the penalty with a similar move. In this case, the centre-forward’s role was mainly limited to a decoy for his runs. To try not to sound like apologising for Kerzhakov too much, he should have scored and his profligacy might have ultimately cost Russia at 2-1. But one might come to accept that centre-forwards don’t always have to score – if others do.

2.Warning: massive Arshavin apology

Russia’s 4-1 win over Czech Republic was exhilarating, exhibiting the kind of exuberance they showed in 2008 when they finally captured – after nearly two decades of obscurity – their total footballing heritage. They passed the ball quickly, poured forward in numbers and punished the Czechs when it mattered. Andrey Arshavin was superb, directing counter-attacks with sharpness. For his apologist, the win was a massive advert of what Arsenal did wrong. Except we can’t possibly excuse three years in which his numbers (except passing accuracy) were on the back of a match. Indeed, if he can play so well for Russia, what is it that makes it different at Arsenal?

For one, Arshavin relishes playing for his country; the responsibility of captaincy paradoxically liberating him. The other is the level of freedom he gets for Russia that he can’t possibly at Arsenal. Because for the national side, he’s the one player that’s capable of moments of spontaneity – and that kind of responsibility would be too much of Dzagoev – but for Arsenal, he is offered a degree of freedom but how much more can Wenger subsidise his role?

More appropriately, it’s that extra space he’s offered at international or Russian domestic level which he thrives on, particularly on the break. Perhaps, giving him a central role might have allowed him to do that at Arsenal, but patently, Wenger doesn’t see him as a playmaker. The Czech were naive to offer him that room – but they did so, because they thought they could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. In the Premier League, most teams approach Arsenal in an overly cautious manner thus 60+% of the game is played in their half. As such, it must be said Arshavin, simply hasn’t been able adjust to the lack of space in an Arsenal shirt. Indeed, Czech Republic realised their 4-1-4-1 was giving too much room on the break for him and a result, in the second-half, put on another holding midfielder, Thomas Hubschmann, to try and shore things up before the floodgates eventually opened again.

It was the partnership with Dzagoev, though, which caught the eye, interchanging freely with him in a way that Arshavin might not be afforded at Arsenal with Theo Walcott. The Gunners tried to do that more last season but not in real time and rather, at designated phases of the match. For Russia, they both figured wide in 4-3-3 initially but were tasked with roaming inside, at times resembling a Christmas Tree shape.

In turn, Arshavin thrilled and dazzled for Russia in a way all too familiar yet too far for the Gunners.

3.Poland’s Arsenal conundrum

Poland, hosting their first major sporting event, produced an atmosphere that was spine-tingling as it was inspiring. And as expected, their national team responded, using the nervous and excited energy to make an exhilarating start. They were relentless in the first-period, as they poured forward with pace and never allowed Greece to settle as they wanted to. However, in the second-half, they just couldn’t come out in the same fashion. Because once the novelty of hosting the first game set in, they looked ordinary and were soon pegged back through an equaliser and then a red card for Wojciech Szczesny.

In a sense, Poland’s second-half echoed the end of Arsenal’s season and the consequent conundrum they face for the next. Because The Gunners ended 2011/12 playing at a dizzyingly high-tempo that they can’t possibly retain for next season. Or if they do, they must do it in a more intelligent manner. Because from February,Arsenal managed to save their season by using the momentum in the race for third to devastating effect, approaching games with an intent that opponents couldn’t match. But they almost always let up in the second-half as that intensity is difficult to maintain. And as such, Wenger will be planning the next season with a hint of the unknown: does his team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half of the campaign, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time.

For Poland, the objective is more short-term. Because once the game settled, they showed their limitation and when asked to create, offered little in terms of cohesion apart from a selection of players. Łukasz Piszczek gave them a different dimension from right-back, Robert Lewandoski battled and bullied opposing defenders while Ludovic Obraniak only dazzled in glimpses. Host nations have always been empowered by their home crowd and it looks like Poland will need every one of their inhabitants to roar them on.

Arsenal player watch

Wojciech Szczęsny (2/10): The goalkeeper was relatively untested before Greece’s equaliser which he might have felt he should have done better. And his day – and possibly his tournament – came to a premature end when he was red-carded. Szczęsny has come far in a short space of time with not only his talent but his personality and he’s need every bit of that if he is to retain is his place once his suspension elapses.

Tomáš Rosický (5/10): Rosický showed neat the touches and turns that we have come to expect from him but was unable to deliver the telling passes to inspire his country. It was another long-haired schemer that impressed, however, for the Czech’s as Petr Jiráček outshone his captain.

Andrey Arshavin (7/10): The Russian captain seems to thrive playing for his country and he delivered once again, tormenting the Czech Republic defence and instigating breaks with pinpoint vision.

Euro 2012: Will Robin van Persie get the support he craves?

If this is the Golden Era of the prolific front men, then you might want to spare a thought for their back-ups. Because it’s they that have to suffer the most, having to sit and watch as each goal from the main striker further condemns to a bit-part role. Indeed, with the prevalence of the lone striker system in the modern game, it means only one can start. For Manchester United fans, that meant having to sit through last season perplexed as to why Dimitar Berbatov rarely figured while even the relatively prolific Javier Hernandez (10 goals in 21 starts) had to play second fiddle to Danny Welbeck because he created space better for the chief goal-getter, Wayne Rooney. At other clubs around Europe, it was a similar scenario: Lionel Messi’s exploits meant Barcelona went most of the season without an orthodox striker; Lucas Barrios only started three games at Borussia Dortmund despite top scoring the season before while Arsenal fans have seldom seen Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young warm up, let alone enter the play. And in the forthcoming European Championships, both France and Germany have decided to pack their sides with creative midfielders and enter the tournament with only two strikers.

It’s not such an obvious choice up front for Netherlands, however, as they can call on the third and fourth top-scorers in Europe respectively, Robin van Persie (30 goals) and Klass-Jan Huntelaar (29 goals). Indeed, the decision to which of the strikers has been the main talking point in the lead up to Euro 2012. Huntelaar impressed in qualifying with 12 goals but the signs are van Persie will get the nod despite never quite convincing in the orange – it’s his fourth major tournament as a starter. But if van Persie is assured of a place in the line-up come the opener against Germany, it’s because the normally cautious Bert van Marwijk has decided give the Arsenal striker the support – on the pitch – that he so desperately craves.

The Holland manager, in van Persie’s words, has said that he “will go for a striker who works well with the midfield,” but stopping short of virtually confirming that he will start, van Persie added: “But that can also be Klaas.” And the slight tactically change – mainly decided upon by the unique skills of the personnel at his disposal rather than any ideological shift – suits van Persie more. “Robin is an all-round attacker, but he showed he is also a killer in the box,” said van Marwijk. “Klaas-Jan is a goal-getter and is always getting better with the squad.”

The new approach was indicated in the 6-0 thrashing of Northern Ireland where Robin van Persie created and scored two goals and in particular, linking superbly with Ibrahim Afellay. Indeed, unlike Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder beforehand perhaps, convincing Afellay to use his skill on the left is probably the final piece of van Marwijk’s puzzle. It allows Afellay to cut in his stronger foot and create but most importantly, to link up with the forward. Because with van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 system, there’s a distinct 6-4 split between defence and attack and thus, a lot relies on the front four to produce. As such, having an extra creator in the line-up instead of the hard-working Dirk Kuyt allows van Marwijk to go with two holding midfielders. “At the World Cup, we played large parts of games in our opponents’ half,” said the manager. “That means you need to be very patient, because if you force yourself too much – and we know the level of football at the Euros – then you know you will face dangerous counterattacks, and we don’t want that.”

The set up should fuel Robin van Persie’s instincts; spontaneity is his greatest asset, yet those impulses haven’t been rewarded in the international stage. He complains about the lack of service he received in South Africa 2010, indirectly criticising the role of Wesley Sneijder. “However hard I find it to accept, I wasn’t on top of my game,” he told Henk Spaan in FT Magazine. “In the whole World Cup, I was only put [through] in front of the keeper four or five times. Cesc [Fabregas] did it four or five times a match.” The two have made up since then and the signs were good when Sneijder put through van Persie in the 2-1 warm-up defeat to Bulgaria. Indeed, Van Persie tells Spaan of the unique relationship between the team’s playmaker and the striker that that they have to “form a two-in-one unit” and it’s notable that for Arsenal last season, van Persie’s goalscoring really accelerated when Aaron Ramsey was push closer to him in attack. And later on in the season, his understanding with Tomas Rosicky (and the impact of Yossi Benayoun) seemed to be the only thing pushing Arsenal over the line.

Many feel that this might be Robin van Persie’s zenith moment – and not just Arsenal fans who anxiously wait with the belief that the tournament holds the key to his future. Ajax analyst and friend of Johan Cruyff, Tonnie Bruins Slot, feels van Persie can emulate the legendary striker with his interpretation of the no.9 role. “Johan always started as the team’s forward, and then dropped a bit deeper to direct play, and create space for wingers like Rob Rensenbrink and John Rep, and midfielders such as Wim van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens,” Tonnie Bruins Slot told De Telegraaf. “This indirectly led to the ‘Totaalvoetbal’ Oranje played at the 1974 World Cup. Van Persie can play a similar role this summer, and it looks like [national team coach] Bert van Marwijk intends to use him like that.”