In Euro 2012, Italy approached matches with the intention of dominating the middle third of the pitch and dictating the pace of play. Thirty-three-year-old Andrea Pirlo sat in front of the back four alongside Daniele De Rossi and sprayed balls forwards, left, and right.
Some teams were aware of this and tried to mark him, but did so unsuccessfully. It’s not that the strategy was defective rather that the players that were chosen to carry out the plan were not the right ones.
In Italy’s Group C draw with Croatia, current Bayern striker Mario Mandzukic was assigned to track Pirlo's movement when Italy was in possession. After the first 10 minutes or so, Mandzukic stopped doing his job and Italy began dominating the midfield. They won a free kick and Pirlo scored.
In the second half, Rakitic was moved into a deep midfield holding role and was strictly assigned to track Pirlo. As a result of this change, Croatia won the midfield battle for the rest of the game and eventually equalized.
In Italy's 1-1 draw with Spain, Spain allowed Italy too much time on the ball through Pirlo and De Rossi. This was also because Spain didn't adequately press the Italian full backs and they were allowed to get the ball into the midfield, but again, Pirlo was the main focus.
When England played Italy in the quarterfinal, Wayne Rooney was given the task of dropping into midfield and marking Pirlo. Similarly to Mandzukic, Rooney strayed from his responsibilities and pushed further up the pitch, allowing Pirlo the freedom of the midfield.
Italy dominated the midfield for the entire match and in the end, England only saved itself from losing in regulation by dropping so deep that Pirlo’s over-the-top and grounded through balls were ineffective.
To cap it all off, in what was one of his finest performances in Euro 2012, Pirlo and Italy took on Germany in the semifinals. Jogi Low gave Toni Kroos the job of marking Pirlo, and as you might be able to guess by now, he didn’t stick to his assignment. The Juventus man was able to play long diagonal passes throughout the match, one of which ultimately resulted in Italy’s first goal.
So, how does this all relate to Juventus and their upcoming match against Bayern? It turns out that just as Pirlo was the key man for Italy in Euro 2012, he is the key player for Juventus as well. According to www.whoscored.com, Pirlo has made an average of 3.1 key passes per match (for Juventus in all competitions), the highest of any midfielder or player on Juventus's roster.
One could argue (and they wouldn't be wrong) that a side with Pirlo in the midfield could be stopped by marking the Italian stalwart. But the key to marking Pirlo is dividing the job amongst two or three players.
If one player is assigned, the plan often goes awry as the match goes on, especially in the case of strikers being assigned to mark deep-lying midfielders. Mandzukic and Rooney were not the wisest picks for man-marking Pirlo, because their natural tendencies as forwards enticed them to move up and look for goal-scoring opportunities.
Now let’s look at the Champions League match. In Munich, Bayern dealt with Pirlo by pressing high up the pitch and forcing him into one of his worst performances as a member of Juventus.
He completed only 70 percent of his attempted passes, was dispossessed four times, and turned the ball over twice. He had 58 touches.
Because Pirlo’s time on the ball was severely limited, most of Juventus’s build up play was left to the centerbacks to construct. Leonardo Bonucci, Georgio Chiellini, and Andrea Barzagli made a combined 156 passes against Bayern.
A key moment in the match at the Allianz Arena was when Toni Kroos walked off with an apparent groin injury. He was originally the man Heynckes ordered to mark Pirlo.
But after the poor job he did on Pirlo at the Euros, this might have been a stroke of luck for Bayern, at least temporarily. Muller was moved from the right side to the center attacking role and did a fine job on Pirlo, sticking tight to him and not allowing him to use his vision and pick out passes.
Who will Jupp Heynckes ask to man mark Andrea Pirlo in Turin?
Just four days prior, Juventus defeated Inter 2-1 at the San Siro in the Derby d’Italia. Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini combined for total of just 118 passes. This was because Pirlo was the main playmaker. He finished the game with 104 touches (almost double the amount against Bayern) and completed 88 percent of his attempted passes.
Looking a little more in depth, we can see that in Juve’s win at the San Siro, Pirlo delivered 15 long balls from his deep-lying midfield position. Twelve of those were accurate. At the Allianz Arena, Pirlo launched just four long balls. None of them reached their target.Starved from good service, Juventus strikers Matri and Quagliarella combined for just 36 touches.
So how can Juventus, a team that seemed to be outplayed in all areas of the pitch in Munich, come back in Turin and advance to the semifinals? The answer could be as easy as giving Pirlo the freedom of the pitch to move.
Pirlo can be given the freedom of the pitch because unlike other players like Lionel Messi (an integral part of both Barcelona's build-up and goal-scoring), Juventus doesn't depend on Pirlo for goals. They depend on him for assists and ball distribution.
And unlike Arturo Vidal, Juventus doesn't depend on Pirlo to break up opposition play in the midfield, so there is no need for him to sit in pocket between the central defenders and the strikers for the entire match.
Also, giving him the freedom of the pitch ensures that whoever Jupp Heynckes orders to track Pirlo will have to be vigilant. And as the match wares on, whoever tracks him will be dragged out of position, possibly opening up space for Claudio Marchisio or Arturo Vidal to exploit.
However, this plan is easier said than done. As mentioned before, Pirlo is approaching his mid thirties and cannot be asked to run all around the pitch for an entire match. But on the contrary, this season may be Pirlo's last chance to win the "trophy with the big ears." In addition, the effect of the home crowd in Turin will boost Juventus and make it much harder for Bayern to press high up the field for the entire match.
Juventus will be looking to Pirlo to deliver at home, even against the adversity that Bayern poses. They should take the match in Turin as a clean slate and a new opportunity to prove their worth. They are, after all, on track to be champions of Italy after conceding only twenty times this season. Providing that Pirlo can deliver in one of the biggest matches of his career, Juventus has no reason to think that they can't come from behind and progress to the next stage of their Champions League dream.