5 Things Italy's Andrea Pirlo Does Better Than Spain's Xavi

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

5 Things Italy's Andrea Pirlo Does Better Than Spain's Xavi

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    Andrea Pirlo and Xavi have met several times since 2008, including the Euro 2012 final.
    Andrea Pirlo and Xavi have met several times since 2008, including the Euro 2012 final.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Andrea Pirlo and Xavi have been the key cogs in the Italian and Spanish national teams for the better part of a decade.  The two deep-lying playmakers have carried the torch for their disappearing role and kept it relevant in today's game.

    The two have been hailed as some of the best midfielders of their generation but while Xavi has been catapulted into international acclaim by the success of Spain and Barcelona, Pirlo has not gotten the same kind of global recognition by playing his football in Italy.

    That's a shame, since in many ways he's a superior player to the Spaniard.

    How does the midfield maestro trump his Spanish counterpart?  Read on to find out.

Free Kicks

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    Xavi is no slouch in this department but no one on earth is as good as Andrea Pirlo at scoring on free kicks.

    There's really not a lot to say about Pirlo's supreme skill over a dead ball.  I'd invite you instead to look up "Andrea Pirlo free kick" on YouTube, sit back and admire the various compilations and highlights that you'll find.  The masterpiece Pirlo spun against Mexico at the Confederations Cup seen on this slide is only a sampling of the fantastic shots he has put into the net over the course of his career.

    Pirlo is second in Serie A history in goals off free kicks and when his career is over he will likely be known as one of the best dead-ball artists in the history of the game.  There's no shame in being beaten out in this department by the master—and Xavi is certainly beaten in this category.

Long Balls

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    Pirlo gets set to deliver a long pass in Italy's November friendly against Nigeria.
    Pirlo gets set to deliver a long pass in Italy's November friendly against Nigeria.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Again a case of merely not measuring up to the very best in the world, Xavi can't compare with Pirlo in the delivery of long passes.

    With Pirlo, it's more of an event when a 50- or 60-yard pass fails rather than succeeds.  He can hit a dime in the snow from 50 yards.  His incredible accuracy with long balls allows Juventus and Italy to release for lightning counterstrikes.

    So far this season Pirlo is averaging 9.3 completed long balls over Serie A, the Champions League and the Europa League—including a whopping 11.4 in Champions League play, per WhoScored.  He has completed a mind-boggling 81.7 percent of those long passes.

    By comparison, Xavi is averaging 6.8, per WhoScored.  His completion percentage this year is a bit higher than Pirlo's, but this is mitigated by the massive disparity in attempts between the two—Pirlo has attempted more than 100 more long balls.

    It's another case of Xavi bumping against one of the best ever and not quite reaching his insane level.

Leadership

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    Pirlo has become a leader for club and country.
    Pirlo has become a leader for club and country.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    This is the first time we encounter an area where Xavi may actually be deficient.

    Andrea Pirlo has turned into the epitome of locker room leadership.  He is one of only four players who have the potential to go to Brazil who were on the squad when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.  His years as one of the best players in Italy's history have given him the ability to lead and unite the team by example and without bluster.

    As a much-cited quote, noted by Adam Digby in ESPN FC, from former Italy manager Marcello Lippi says, "Pirlo is our silent leader.  He lets his feet talk on his behalf."

    Xavi, on the other hand, has proven susceptible to the regional divisions that run deeply though Spanish culture.

    Many credit Xavi and Iker Casillas for helping Spain to overcome the regional divides that make Barcelona and Real Madrid such fierce rivals and spurring them to their unprecedented run of success.  But after a particularly nasty series of four Clasicos in the months before Euro 2012 Xavi called Madrid players out for the way they took defeat.  His comments revived fears that the team may again crack along Barca/Real lines.

    Then there was the report in Spanish publication Marca, during the Confederations Cup, that Xavi had informed coaches which players he preferred to play with and tried to press Vicente Del Bosque into playing him in a different position after Xabi Alonso was injured.  

    Del Bosque denied this, but that disturbing report—along with again blasting Jose Mourinho's Madrid—has brought up troubling questions about Xavi's quality as a leader in the dressing room.

    Pirlo is a man who leads with his play.  If everything we're hearing about Xavi is true, he may be starting to lead with his ego.

Tactical Adaptability

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    Pirlo has spoken about following managers like Conte to the manager's office.
    Pirlo has spoken about following managers like Conte to the manager's office.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

    Xavi is about as intelligent as soccer players come—something to be expected from a product of La Masia.

    Pirlo, however, is a virtuoso with tactics.  His understanding is one of the biggest reasons he has success.  He has also been able to seamlessly integrate himself into the tactical systems of a bevy of coaches.  Carlo Mazzone, Carlo Ancelotti, Leonardo, Max Allegri and Antonio Conte are just few of the men he's played under, and that's only at the club level.

    His ability to transform himself from a No. 10 as a young player to a regista at Brescia under Mazzone and then at Milan under Ancelotti is evidence that his tactical acumen has been with him for quite a while.  Another excellent example of his intelligence came when he helped lead Conte's midseason switch from a 4-3-3 to his now-famous 3-5-2 at Juve during the 2011-12 season.

    Michael Cox of ESPN said in 2011 that Pirlo "speaks about football with the thoughtfulness of [Pep] Guardiola."  It's high praise to be compared with one of the game's greatest coaches, and Pirlo has tentative plans to go into coaching once he has finally hung up his boots.

    While Xavi is supremely intelligent, he's never had to make large-scale tactical changes the way Pirlo has.  Both club and country have played subtle variations of the tiki-taka of Guardiola, Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque for the majority of his career.  Does this mean he can't handle such change?  No, but until he does, that aspect of his game is still a question mark, whereas Pirlo has proven time and again how adaptable he can be.

The Beard

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    Best.  Beard.  Ever.
    Best. Beard. Ever.Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

    Is this topic a fluff piece?  Maybe.  But when players are as close to each other in quality as Xavi and Pirlo are, sometimes these things matter.

    I mean look at it.  It's flawless.  How could anyone hope to compete with that?  Xavi's stubbly permanent five o'clock shadow doesn't come close.