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Position: Deep-lying midfielder
Caps: 83 (9 goals)
One of the best midfielders in the world, Andrea Pirlo never gets the media attention that the world's other elite players do. That's probably because Pirlo doesn't really draw attention to himself off the field and, as former Italy manager Marcello Lippi once famously said, "speaks with his feet."
Pirlo is absolutely critical to the Italian attack. Without him for the first two and a half games because of injury in South Africa two years ago, the Italians looked absolutely lost, particularly in a disappointing 1-1 draw against New Zealand in which they were awarded nearly 20 corner kicks, but could only score from the penalty spot.
The sum total of the Italian attack was getting the ball to the wing, swing a cross in, and hope that Alberto Gilardino or Vincenzo Iaquinta would get their heads to it.
In the 35 or so minutes after he was introduced to the final group game against Slovakia, the team completely transformed. They put the ball into the net three times in those 35 minutes, although one of the goals was called back for a controversial offside call. The two goals that did count were both from open play—whereas the two they had scored in the previous two games were both off set pieces.
Pirlo will start every game the Italians play, and will fill the deep-lying regista role that has made him famous. In the middle of the Serie A season, several provincial sides had success crowding Pirlo and not giving him the room to snap off his crisp passes, which means that physical midfielders such as De Rossi and Thiago Motta must impose themselves to keep opponents off of him so that he can operate. The Italians will also rely on his pinpoint delivery to provide scoring chances off set pieces.
With Pirlo operating an possession-based attack that is very similar to the one he played while dominating Serie A with Juventus this season, the Italians will likely dominate possession in their games against Croatia and Ireland and keep the ball better than most against the possession-based Spaniards. That possession will likely be translated into scoring chances, which the forwards must not waste.