Andrea Pirlo - The Lazy Genius
The central midfield position can change the style of a football team in its entirety dependent on the composition of the area. Historically, there have been many standout central midfielders who have had distinctly different styles but all shared the same attributes of being high football achievers through accomplished football intellect. There was Dunga, an unconventional midfielder by Brazilian standards but one who supplied the order and discipline that Brazil needed in a changing football landscape. There was Johan Cruyff, a cultured footballing purist from Amsterdam with an engine that allowed him to glide from box to box with acceleration and control and the man largely responsible for the deployment of ‘total football’ to some of the world's greatest clubs, Ajax of Amsterdam and FC Barcelona – he talked the talk and walked the walk. Then there is Andrea Pirlo (aka L'Architetto), the nonchalant magician of the Azzurri; the lazy genius with the ability to win a match while seemingly being restricted to an invisible box. The Italian exudes class and calmness, harnessing his capabilities towards being identified amongst the greatest ever midfielders to play the beautiful game.
Pirlo’s career, which has seen him win numerous Scudetto’s and a World Cup, is based on the masterful capabilities of 360° vision, meticulous control of the football and passing accuracy that can be likened to Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time. He is not blessed with natural speed, but a combination of the armoury listed give him the ability to command football matches through his defence splitting passing and dictation of the velocity of the game.
When watching the genius in action, you notice how he almost plays in slow motion and dare question his innate ability to create the opportunities he does. The secret lay in his 360° vision as he always has his head up on a swivel and more often than not has decided the direction of his pass before he receives the ball. Pirlo tends to drift into a deeper lying position within the midfield and therefore has a fraction more time on the ball. Opposition defenders sometimes have the expectation that deeper lying midfielders dwell on the ball and therefore are slightly more lackadaisical in their positioning until the ball moves up the pitch. L'Architetto exploits this tendency by releasing the ball quickly from deep, often catching opposing defenders on their heels. His passing completion percentage is phenomenal with New York City of the MLS sitting at 82.1% in 27 appearances. That’s 8 out of 10 passes completed successfully and considering a lot of these attempts are defence penetrating the statistic becomes even more impressive - and he's 'only' 37 years of age. In those 27 appearances, he's created 50 chances which exemplifies the quality of the passes he is making. The repetitive process that he implements is head up, receive the ball and play it. This is where a common misconception in coaching comes into play. Youth players are told to receive the ball, look up and then play the pass. Executing this successfully will make you a good player. Mastering the technique of looking up, receiving the ball and then playing the pass will make you a great player. A player should always be probing the pitch looking for the most opportunistic pass or shot which Pirlo does with consistency. This is because the split second you lose when looking up just before playing your pass can be the difference between the ball reaching your teammate versus it being picked out by the opposition or a defender closing down your space, deterring you the ability to distribute. In addition, when you look up after you receive the ball there is more chance of telegraphing your pass by allowing the opposition to see where you will play it through the movement of your eyes. To become competent in the ‘Pirlo Process’ you must develop the following capabilities:
Football vision – understand the common movements of your teammates and have a vision of the entire pitch so that you can play the ball into space with the anticipation that your teammate will be making a run in the same direction
First touch – as you will see the ball arrive late at your feet due to always having your head up, your touch will have to be quick and direct creating an opportunity to play your pass with your second touch. Over time, as you master the technique you will be able to play first touch balls while following the same process
Watching Pirlo dismantle England in the European Championships 2012 was a sight to behold. The below video emphasises all of his quality characteristics from his probing vision, his confidence to have made a decision on the direction of his pass before he receives the ball, his immaculately close ball control, his guile in coaxing opposing players into a tackle they have no chance of winning and finally, his superlative range of pinpoint passing.
The footballing mind of Andrea Pirlo doesn’t need excessive time to think as he is a student of football who has developed the ability to visualize aspects of the match before they occur. When watching him and really immersing yourself into the game, you sense that every movement is a case of deja vu as he seems to dictate and execute phases of the game to perfection.
Footballers should attempt to visualize what they are going to do on the pitch, even the night before they play. Basic techniques are to watch pre-recorded matches and hone in on the player who is playing your specific position. If you can merge your mind into the player and mentally imitate the same actions, albeit as yourself, it will pay dividends on match day. For example, on the night before a game Wayne Rooney routinely requests the club kit man to tell him the colour of the socks, shorts and shirts which Manchester United will be playing in. This is all part of the psychological preparation so integral to on-field confidence and success - after all, if you've successfully visualised the task at hand you've essentially already done it (in a way) and most things are easier to execute the second time around. In my opinion, this creates an element of subconsciousness which transcends into confidence on the pitch. Pirlo depicted his technical and mental abilities by performing the panenka penalty against Joe Hart. He had the confidence in his technique to perform an audacious attempt at scoring a penalty during a major tournament and with his country's hopes of progression lying directly on his majestically egotistical shoulders - his execution was precision personified.
Andrea Pirlo is the Richard Strauss of football, a sublime orchestrator who can turn water into wine in-between the white lines.