There is something rather beautiful about Andrea Pirlo—or at least the idea of Andrea Pirlo.
He is, as Jorge Valdano once said of Juan Roman Riquelme, a player who preserves the spirit of another age. To watch Pirlo at his best is to see a game in sepia; to drift into a gorgeous nostalgia in which football was played without rush by debonair men who stroked the ball about.
Like Riquelme, Pirlo seems an anachronism. He is not quick. He doesn’t charge about the pitch, and he is not one for conspicuous effort.
His effectiveness, rather, lies in his intelligence, his ability to conceptualise the pitch in its entirety, to know where teammates and opponents are and where they will be, allied to a sumptuous ability to craft a pass.
We call him old-fashioned because he doesn’t quite seem of our age, and we presume there must have been a time in which he fitted, but there never was such a time. Read match reports of the 1890s or the pioneering tactical columns in the Sheffield Green'Un, and you’ll find just the same complaints about football’s emphasis on speed as you find today.
But it’s nice to believe there was, and it’s a mark of Pirlo’s greatness that he can awake nostalgia for a golden age that never existed.
Italian football has long admired the regista—a word also used for a film director. It is used to mean playmaker, wherever on the pitch he plays—and Pirlo, of course, did have a time under Carlo Ancelotti at AC Milan as a more orthodox No. 10, but it tends to be used of those rare players who sit deep, dictating the play from in front of the defensive line.
Ancelotti himself played in something approximating to that role as the conductor of Arrigo Sacchi’s orchestra—although nobody really sat that deep in a team that pressed ferociously hard.
Falcao and Toninho Cerezo played as twin registas in the Brazil side at the 1982 World Cup and both had distinguished careers in Serie A with Roma and Sampdoria respectively. There are numerous holding midfielders who circulate the ball—the likes of Sergio Busquets and Michael Carrick—but there have been very few who have the range of passing to be a true playmaker from deep.
Xabi Alonso is the best modern example other than Pirlo. Dragan Stojkovic, perhaps, towards the end of his career would fall into a similar category, but there have been very few.
Yet, perhaps Pirlo is less a glimpse into a lost past than a possible future.
Carlos Alberto Parreira has spoken of how Mario Zagallo, in the early '90s, described his vision of how football would be decades later. He foresaw two lines of players, constantly interchanging around a playmaker. The key is how space can be created for the regista; even the most gifted require a fraction of a second to assess their options.
To an extent, the changes in the offside law over the past two decades have created that, particularly the redefinition in 2006 of what it is to be interfering. Teams are warier now of pushing out and playing an offside trap, which has had the effect of stretching the effective playing area from sometimes as little as 40 yards to nearer 70. That in turn creates space and was one of the reasons behind the successes of Barcelona’s team of diminutive technicians.
But Pirlo has succeeded at Juventus in part because of the players around him. The three central defenders offer protection, and he can even at times drop so deep as to effectively become part of a back four, with Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli adept at shuffling slightly wider.
At the same time, Leonardo Bonucci takes some of the pressure off Pirlo with his ability to step forward from the back and spread long passes. The energy and tenacity of whichever two of Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio are selected mean his lack of defensive capacity is rarely exposed, while also giving him the room—freed from marking responsibilities—in which to direct the play.
He’s 34 now and as his career perhaps at last is slowing to a halt, Pirlo remains an anachronism. Possibly, though, he is less a hangover of a golden past than a herald of things to come.