The Pirlo, Totti and Xavi Rule: Football's Pass Masters Get Better with Age
Take a look at the average pass numbers for Europe's top leagues this season, and you'll find four of the top five players have something in common.
Mikel Arteta, Xavi, Michael Carrick and Andrea Pirlo are all over 30. The other man in the top five, Yaya Toure, is 29.
Arsenal's Arteta leads with an average 90.6 passes a game in the Premier League this season (all stats provided by Whoscored.com). Notably, he's also in the top five for pass success, coming in at 93.2 percent.
But what's really interesting is the progression of Arteta's pass-accuracy numbers.
Last season, he achieved a 90.8 percent success rate. The season before, that number was 86.9 percent. It appears his passing is getting better with age (he's also playing more passes, but a lot of that is due to his swapping Everton for Arsenal).
Age has a big bearing on the accurate through-ball numbers, too. Roma's ever-romantic vision Francesco Totti, at 36, leads the European standings by a huge margin.
Totti's countryman Antonio Cassano, 30, is in second place, with the masterful 33-year-old Pirlo third on the back of his continued brilliance as Juve's resplendent regista.
Who's fourth? Steed Malbranque, the veteran 32-year-old Frenchman who can now be found at Lyon.
And then there's the stats for accurate long balls per game. AC Milan's Riccardo Montolivo, a relative youngster at 27, leads that category, but he's followed by Paul Scholes and Daniele Conti—Manchester United and Cagliari midfielders who have clocked up 37 and 33 years, respectively.
If you want further evidence, see Serie A's average key passes numbers for last season. Top of the list is Pirlo, second is Totti. Cassano also makes the top five.
Pirlo averaged 2.2 key passes per game for the 2009-10 campaign with Milan. He was up to 3.4 with Juventus last season. His assists for the season jumped from four to 13.
And with everybody looking for a bright young thing to light up Euro 2012, it was Pirlo who shone brightest of all, picking passes instinctively and making time stand still at the fulcrum of Italy's midfield.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
The fact that Hazard is already inside Europe's top five for assists this season says everything about where he's going. Messi's average key passes number has risen from 2, to 2.1, to 2.5 in the last three seasons, and he's already the best player of his generation.
The second best, Cristiano Ronaldo, has achieved more assists year after year for the last three seasons in La Liga.
The legs might fade, the athleticism dim, but footballers approaching their 30s can at least console themselves that there's one area in which they are yet to reach their peak.
Age is but a number. And when it comes to passing numbers, there's evidence to suggest the higher it is, the better.
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