The difference between Barcelona's Xavi and Juventus' Andrea Pirlo is not silverware. Measured in trophies, their careers weigh heavy: Together they have won 11 domestic titles, five Champions League trophies, four Super Cups and two World Cups.
What separates these two playmaking midfielders, the finest of their generation, is not substance but style. That is what Pirlo has.
Both conduct the game: the Spaniard in staccato, the Italian with broader strokes. Both play with rhythm. Both are 34, and we can only enjoy them for a little while longer.
And yet the way Xavi plays is not the way Pirlo does. Xavi is cloaked brilliance, often doing stuff on the field that goes undetected, invisible, the little passes here and there that propel the play. The ball goes through him, as it must. He once told British soccer magazine The Blizzard that he must touch the ball at least 100 times a match, and for the most part he does. His passing is always among the most accurate, marked in the 90s like a student acing every exam.
He is not so obvious. Sometimes the ball only travels a few yards from his foot to another. Other times he has set up goals that won competitions: one pass for Fernando Torres through a couple of defenders in the 2008 Euro Cup and another perfect ball for Lionel Messi's header in the 2009 Champions League final. Once Xavi put up four assists against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. All told, he has 113 assists over the past decade.
It is as if Xavi wants his teammates to take the credit. He moves the ball quickly on. The ones who score the goals, such as Messi and Andres Iniesta (and Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o before them), take the headlines and the awards. Xavi claims Iniesta is better, per Simon Kuper's book Soccer Men. Messi keeps winning individual awards.
“Individually, I’m nothing,” he tells the journalist Graham Hunter in his book, Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World. “I play with the best and that makes me a better player. I depend on my teammates. If they don’t find space, I don’t find them with the ball.”
Pirlo doesn’t hide so much on the field. His passes are often long, arcing and not as frequent. Pirlo saves energy and waits for the right moment. The way he feints to trick defenders and buy space or pinpoints a pass is all smooth and calculated. He never looks rushed. If the ball squirts out and he has to chase it down he’ll go and tackle, too.
His first goal for Italy came off a free kick back in 2004. He’s scored at Maracanā. He grew out a beard. He pulled off the "Panenka" in the penalty shootout with England at the Euro Cup. He drew applause at the Bernabeu, a crowd which has honoured Ronaldinho, Alessandro Del Piero and Ryan Giggs, a kind of recognition of the highest order. He is one of seven to play for Inter, AC Milan and Juventus. He drinks wine, owns a vineyard with his family and wrote a book.
When he was a child, he implored his teammates to give him the ball. “From the time I was young, I knew I was stronger than the others,” he claims in his book, Penso Quindi Gioco, as translated by Steve Amoia at The Soccer Translator. “Nobody passed the ball to me. They avoided me like a leper only because I was better than they.”
Not so many assists came from him, but 32 goals were scored from free kicks for club and country—and nine with Juventus over the past three seasons alone.
He is never lucky. He feels "a little Brazilian," as he says in his book. Each kick is masterful, the ball floating right into the net, sometimes curling away and back, up and back down, nestling just under the bar. He knows exactly where to put the ball.
The beginning was rough. Pirlo studied tape of Juninho (h/t Yahoo! Sports), perhaps the greatest free-kicker of all, and he tried and tried at Milan's training complex Milanello, balls soaring over the net and fences, leaving the trainer to go fetch the wayward missiles.
He went to Carlo Ancelotti early in their time together at Milan and told the coach that he wanted to try to play as a defensive midfielder. Before that, Pirlo was always attacking. Ancelotti writes in his autobiography:
I was afraid Pirlo might create problems in terms of timing, because he likes to take the ball and keep it. A safe with a slow combination. I wasn’t overly confident in this new approach, but I listened to him and gave it a try at the Berlusconi Trophy. I was astonished. He started playing with beautiful simplicity, and he became an unrivalled player.
Xavi could relate. His spot was hard to find. In 1998, Xavi made his debut for Barcelona, back when he used to ride the subway to the stadium. The fans didn’t know much about him, and why would they? Pep Guardiola was the man playing in the role invented by Johan Cruyff, slotted in the No. 4 position, the pivot. Guardiola was an idol to Xavi, but he was also in the way.
Xavi was 18, and United came for him. Even Barcelona, writes Graham Hunter in an excerpt of his book printed in The Blizzard, were open to the idea of selling Xavi, who didn’t have “great marketing cachet.” He could have left for England like Cesc Fabregas, discouraged with life at Camp Nou.
The fans didn’t want this young kid to usurp Guardiola. They wrote about it in the newspapers and whistled when Xavi came as a substitute. “I was made to feel like an outsider,” Xavi says in the book, “a bad guy for taking over from the legendary captain. We are not good at handling change here.”
Not until Frank Rijkaard arrived did Xavi truly play with any comfort. For a local boy, a Catalan, playing for his childhood team, it is comfort that he always sought. And he eventually enjoyed that for the rest of his career. Since 2008, when Luis Aragones first coached Spain in the 2008 Euro Cup with the spirit of tiki-taka football, Xavi has played within familiar surroundings, often with the same players for club and country.
Iniesta is an anchor, a friend, “the most complete Spanish footballer” Xavi has ever played with. "The player who understands me best on the pitch, both at Barcelona and with the national team, is Andrés Iniesta," Xavi told UEFA.com. "He is a complete player, we link up well together."
Someone is always there to help Xavi, whether it is a teammate running into space or someone like Iniesta to reinforce the attack. Xavi belongs to a larger system, an era. He is a presence, not so much a stand-out—perhaps just as he likes it. Kuper writes in Soccer Men:
He didn’t do the things that get players headlines, like squabbling or being transferred or scoring a lot of goals. He never spoke much. At 5’6” on a good day, he was no superhero. All he did was hit pass, left to right, up and down, like someone filling in a crossword puzzle at top speed.
Pirlo is not an accessory; he is the nucleus. He has moved around. He isn’t so much a team player as he is the team’s silent leader. He goes for the spectacular, even if he comes off cool and distant. Pirlo doesn’t have as high a pass-completion percentage as Xavi, per WhoScored.com, but he does aim for longer ones. Where Xavi is safe, Pirlo is risky.
That is why Xavi would make a better coach; he is tactical. Not Pirlo; he hates warm-ups.
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