Juventus fans did not know what to make of the signing of Andrea Pirlo two summers ago. An injury plagued season had caused many to regard him as a dimming star. Behind the scenes, Antonio Conte was puzzling as well. Long a proponent of the unorthodox 4-2-4 approach, Pirlo's strengths as a regista did not translate into the tactics that he had just used to send Siena to the top of Serie B.
Rather than try to shoehorn Pirlo into his preferred formation, Conte showed his true quality as a manager and rebuilt his system to fit the talents of his new midfield general. The results were phenomenal: working out of either a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2, Pirlo revived his career with a fantastic season and led Juve to an undefeated season and the scudetto. He topped it off with a masterful performance at Euro 2012 that took the underdog Italians to the final and put his name forward as a top candidate for the ballon d'or.
This year, the bianconeri faithful were optimistic but cautious. Yes, Juve had had a fantastic season in 2011-12, but it was done without the rigors of the Champions League. Pirlo would be 34 by season's end. Would the Champions League take its toll on l'architetto?
The Italian made a huge statement in the Serie A opener against Parma. He took 94 touches, and completed 87 percent of his passes. He even kicked in two tackles—always a weakness for him—and topped the night off with a free kick goal that just made it past the goal line in the 58th minute.
But the moment of truth for Pirlo's season this year would be the games after Champions League matches. These have brought mixed results. In Juve's first match after UCL play, against Fiorentina, Pirlo looked visibly off. He was hauled off the field after 68 minutes, Juve played out an uninspiring goalless draw, and alarm bells started ringing all over Turin.
The second time he was trotted out after a Champions League tie, however, was a different story. Pirlo had been effectively bottled up by Shakhtar's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in midweek, and looked eager to break out. He throttled Siena, scoring a goal on a low, hard free kick, was denied a second by the woodwork and was named the man of the match.
In the next four matches that followed Champions League play, Pirlo had no fewer than 95 touches in any match and completed no less than 81 percent of his passes. He completed a total of 12 key passes in those four matches, 34 accurate long balls (including 14 alone in the October 12 match against Catania), and notched an assist in the 6-1 demolition of Pescara that followed Juve's 4-0 Champions League win over Nordsjaelland.
Overall so far this season, Pirlo has scored four goals in Serie A(one more than he did all of last year), notched three assists each in Serie A and the Champions League. In both competitions he is averaging 3.7 key passes, 8.6 long balls, and three accurate crosses per match, completing 86.3 percent of his passes.
So Pirlo's overall grade through the winter break? Hiccups against Fiorentina and the first matches against Chelsea and Shakhtar notwithstanding, Pirlo has been fantastic. His form going into the winter break has never been better, including a magical match in Atalanta two weeks ago when he completed 96 percent of his passes, had 150 touches, scored a wonderful free kick goal and was accurate on a ridiculous 27 or 28 long balls. This mastery garnered a hard-to-come-by 10 rating from whoscored.com, and showed the overall level of his play on the year.
The continued rumors of Pirlo's imminent demise are again unfounded. Pirlo has earned a solid A+ rating over the first part of the season, and looks only to be getting stronger as the new years looms, with (hopefully) a new target to find on Juve's forward line, the Champions League knockout phases coming, and the start of the ritorna bringing with it the prospect of revenge on Inter and AC Milan for the losses suffered during the andata.
One thing is certain—if a team wants to beat Juventus, Andrea Pirlo is still the man that must be stopped in order to have any sort of chance.
All stats from whoscored.com