Italy’s midfield maestro holds the key to unlocking final

Italy’s midfield maestro holds the key to unlocking final

Pass master … Andrea Pirlo continues to mesmerise.Before Euro 2012, Xavi emphasised the threat of Andrea Pirlo, calling him a midfield maestro. He was right on the money.

The man who lit up the tournament following a majestic performance in the quarter-final against England with a superbly crafted ”Panenka”, the deftly chipped penalty that floats lightly into the goal as the hapless keeper dives one way or the other, has been the undisputed star of the tournament. Pirlo’s rare talent found its full expression in a brilliant, Champions League-winning AC Milan team of 2007 that included Australia’s Zeljko Kalac, with Kaka, Cafu and Inzaghi to anticipate his beautiful switches of play and precise, penetrating passes.

One thing is for certain, our game evolves so quickly it is almost impossible to anticipate the next step, and no one knows this better than Massimiliano Allegri.

The coach of Milan felt Pirlo’s best was behind him and allowed him to join Juventus on a free transfer. For one of the finest passers of the ball seen in many a decade. Extraordinary.

History will record Pirlo lifted Juventus to a new level, became their conductor and spiritual guide, and took them to an unbeaten season and a 30th Scudetto. Italy will doubtless be lauding the brilliant Cesare Prandelli who, aside from having shown the world a new, invigorating Italian football, has brought a rare humanity and humility to the role.

Talk of human qualities like love, generosity and romanticism is unusual in a world of football more used to courage, confrontation and fighting qualities. Prandelli’s own personal journey of stepping aside from the game to support his wife through her failed battle with breast cancer, gives him a perspective that has no doubt been invaluable to a team featuring two of the most problematic characters to grace a pitch, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.

But credit must also go to Antonio Conte, coach of La Vecchia Signora, for giving Pirlo the platform, support and confidence to continue to mesmerise. How quickly life can change. One year ago, Pirlo was facing the scrap heap. Today, he stands as the toast of world football and the most important factor in the European Championship final on Sunday.

Pirlo holds the key to the game as it will be the degree to which Spain can stifle his creativity that will determine the outcome. Neither a shocking England, nor a German side widely expected to contest the final, have been able to adequately shackle the brilliant pass master, to their demise. Problem is, Conte and Prandelli have used Pirlo as a deep lying playmaker who has challenged current thinking and systems and, aside from Spain in the first group game, no one has found the solution. Pirlo is, in effect, a No. 10 playing as a No. 6, ahead of the defensive line, as we used to see 15 years ago before the advent of the ”Makelele” role, whereby a midfield destroyer became the norm to close down the opposing attacking midfielder. Creativity and inspiration was out, strength and destruction was in.

Playing two more defensively minded players either side of Pirlo gives the security for the creator to operate at the base of a midfield diamond where he can influence the entire game, from building up, to creation and penetration.

Often, an attacking midfielder is reliant on the two lines behind to get the ball forward securely and without pressure, whereas Pirlo is the best in the business at making this happen, as well as providing the attacking characteristics of a classic No. 10. This presents a problem for the modern system du jour, the 4-2-3-1, in which an Ozil will typically not have the defensive qualities necessary, necessitating a tactical shift from the Germans that contributed to their undoing, or a player must be sent further forward to mark Pirlo, opening lines into the strikers.

Football moves in cycles as one change forces adaptation, and the match-winning players move around, and up and down the park, as coaches place them in areas to counter the particular systemic norms of the day.

Thus we once again have a midfield playmaker controlling the game from start to finish, a creator of the highest class and capability, Pirlo, holding the key to whether Italy can announce its re-emergence as a major power and serious threat for the 2014 World Cup, or a superb but tiring Spain can continue its era of dominant and stunningly beautiful football.

Twitter – @Craig-Foster

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