When talking about Andrea Pirlo, Roy Hodgson used to call the midfield maestro a ‘dickhead’. Both men worked together at Internazionale for a spell in the 1990s, during which Hodgson used to refer to him as “Pirla,” a term that in Milan dialect translates into the ‘dickhead insult.
But far from being a slight on Pirlo, it was merely an innocent mispronunciation. In fact, Hodgson could hardly harbour any more admiration for the Italy captain. When asked this week who from the Azzurri line-up he feared most, the England boss replied:
If I have to give one name, I’d say Pirlo.
Indeed, much of the focus ahead of England’s opening World Cup game against Italy on Saturday (11pm) has been on the 35-year-old. He’s been identified as England’s tormentor-in-chief, and Hodgson says he has a plan for him.
Seemingly every blogger with a WordPress account has undertaken a tactical study on how to stop Pirlo picking apart England, like he did two years ago in the European Championship quarter-finals. England is obsessed with Pirlo.
But does Pirlo really warrant such attention?
Italy are about more than just their ageing midfield lynchpin. Much more.
There is a certain kind of football fan that regards Pirlo as some sort of god amongst men. ‘Pirlophiles’ see him as a more sophisticated football player. You won’t catch Pirlo on holiday in Marbella, stumbling out of a Yates in the early hours of the morning, or with over-sized headphones draped round his neck.
It’s a personality that’s reflected in his game.
In a recent interview, Pirlo shone a light on his simple footballing philosophy. He looks for space.
I look for space so I can get the ball and then start to conduct the play. On the pitch I’m a wandering gypsy.
Admittedly his career has produced moments of unadulterated coolness, for want of a better term.
His ‘Panenka’ penalty against England, the nonchalant free-kick he swept past Fiorentina in the Europa League this season and his corner kick delivery for Marco Materazzi’s World Cup final equaliser against France will all go down in his leather-bound, poetically-written legend.
His gladiatorial coiffure-beard combo makes as many middle-aged men go weak at the knees as it does women. Yet from a purely footballing perspective, Pirlo’s influence is overblown.
Against England two years ago, Pirlo passed England to death, completing more passes than all of England’s midfield four combined. He was so imperious Hodgson would have been forgiven for mispronouncing his name under his breath one more time.
But Pirlo is no longer that player. His powers of manipulation are on the wane.
Morphing into Michael Carrick
Key passes are the currency of the deep-lying midfield playmaker, and at the end of the 2011/12 season he was averaging 3.4 of them per game. Now his average has dropped to just 2.3 per game.
Two years on from his display against England in Kiev, Pirlo is making less overall passes – an average of 86.4 per game in 2012 compared to just 69 per game now – and is taking less risks, indicated by an increase in his pass success rate, which has risen from 86 to 89 per cent.
He’s shooting less, tackling less and even assisting less. In 2011/12 he made 13 Serie A assists, as well as three in the Champions League. This season he has only made six.
Pirlo has essentially morphed into Michael Carrick, but with an air of Italian refinement.
In fact, the Manchester United midfielder averaged more passes per game than his Juventus counterpart last season.
If England are wary of vision and inventiveness, they should be devising a plan for Marco Verratti (if he’s passed fit) instead.
His impact is difficult to quantify with statistics and numbers, given that his greatest quality is energy itself. And with Riccardo Montolivo ruled out of the World Cup with a fractured tibia, Verratti is Italy’s pumping heart, and its tireless legs.
England are expected to press high on Pirlo, preventing him from racking up his passing tally. But in such a scenario he would only need one cutting pass to release Verratti, or any of his teammates, through on an exposed opposition backline. It’s a dangerous ploy.
The PSG man brings a sense of adventure to Cesare Prandelli’s side that Pirlo no longer can. But the two players do share an audacious confidence that seems to come with Italian citizenship.
Verratti’s nickname refers to his goggly eyes and vision in the middle of the park – Il Gufetto. It translates as “The Owl”. At least it’s better than being called a dickhead.