The Pirlo, Totti and Xavi Rule: Football's Pass Masters Get Better with Age

Will Tidey@willtideySenior Manager, GlobalNovember 8, 2012

Take a look at the average pass numbers for Europe's top leagues this season, and you'll find four of the top five players have something in common.

Mikel Arteta, Xavi, Michael Carrick and Andrea Pirlo are all over 30. The other man in the top five, Yaya Toure, is 29.

Arsenal's Arteta leads with an average 90.6 passes a game in the Premier League this season (all stats provided by Whoscored.com). Notably, he's also in the top five for pass success, coming in at 93.2 percent.

But what's really interesting is the progression of Arteta's pass-accuracy numbers.

Last season, he achieved a 90.8 percent success rate. The season before, that number was 86.9 percent. It appears his passing is getting better with age (he's also playing more passes, but a lot of that is due to his swapping Everton for Arsenal).

Xavi is another to attest to that theory. The 32-year-old leads the pass success category with 96.2 percent for Barcelona in La Liga. He was at 90.4 for the 2009-10 season, then 94.4 percent for the 2010-11 campaign. His number evened out at 92.4 last season, but there's still a trend to be seen.

Age has a big bearing on the accurate through-ball numbers, too. Roma's ever-romantic vision Francesco Totti, at 36, leads the European standings by a huge margin.

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Judging by the numbers, Totti's ability to play an attacker in has increased year after year. He averaged 1.0 accurate through-balls per game for the 2009-10 season, 1.1 for 2010-11 and 1.6 last season. Currently, the Italian leads Europe with 2.3 per contest.

Totti's countryman Antonio Cassano, 30, is in second place, with the masterful 33-year-old Pirlo third on the back of his continued brilliance as Juve's resplendent regista.

Who's fourth? Steed Malbranque, the veteran 32-year-old Frenchman who can now be found at Lyon.

And then there's the stats for accurate long balls per game. AC Milan's Riccardo Montolivo, a relative youngster at 27, leads that category, but he's followed by Paul Scholes and Daniele Conti—Manchester United and Cagliari midfielders who have clocked up 37 and 33 years, respectively.

If you want further evidence, see Serie A's average key passes numbers for last season. Top of the list is Pirlo, second is Totti. Cassano also makes the top five.

Pirlo's pass mastery has been well documented. He's another whose distribution appears to be getting better with time—evidenced most clearly with a comparison between his 2009-10 numbers and those he produced for Juventus last season.

Pirlo averaged 2.2 key passes per game for the 2009-10 campaign with Milan. He was up to 3.4 with Juventus last season. His assists for the season jumped from four to 13.

And with everybody looking for a bright young thing to light up Euro 2012, it was Pirlo who shone brightest of all, picking passes instinctively and making time stand still at the fulcrum of Italy's midfield.

Such football intelligence takes time to develop. It takes thousands of hours on the training ground and the ability to soak in every nuance of every situation you ever face on the pitch. Even those born with the sharpest of football brains—the likes of Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi—will not reach their passing peak until much later in their careers.

The fact that Hazard is already inside Europe's top five for assists this season says everything about where he's going. Messi's average key passes number has risen from 2, to 2.1, to 2.5 in the last three seasons, and he's already the best player of his generation.

The second best, Cristiano Ronaldo, has achieved more assists year after year for the last three seasons in La Liga. 

The legs might fade, the athleticism dim, but footballers approaching their 30s can at least console themselves that there's one area in which they are yet to reach their peak.

Age is but a number. And when it comes to passing numbers, there's evidence to suggest the higher it is, the better.