The great regista is a revered figure and would be warmly applauded were he to culminate his stellar career with a third European crown.
But does his inclusion make his team more vulnerable?
It appears a sleight, such a glib thing; to suggest that this great player needs protecting.
After all, in an era where possession-football was still in its infancy, nobody protected the ball as did Andrea Pirlo. In this sense, he represented for his teams a defensive asset.
In his pomp, we would speak in terms of a player who required a retinue for protection, but by that we meant something different. What was referred to then was a dispensation for the Brescian maestro from those defensive actions for which he was simply not equipped. Dashing across to shore up a flank vacated by his full-back? Sorry, you must be thinking of Javier Mascherano. Or Genaro Gattuso, more appropriately. To break up an opposition counter-attack by going to ground? For such endeavours there was Massimo Ambrosini. Scramble to win back possession you’d squandered within seconds of the turnover? Clarence Seedorf sure was no slouch. Rush out to press a ‘blind’ opponent who had his back turned to the play? Even Ricky Kaká could oblige you there. No, in situations where the opponent had the ball the best Pirlo could acquit himself – and something which in itself is a valuable defensive artifice – was by eliminating rivals’ passing options through his astute positioning.
But all that is irrelevant now. For it’s 2015 and Andrea Pirlo – with the ball – no longer instills defensive placidity throughout his ranks, at least not at the elite end of competition.
Absent certain conditions, Pirlo can appear vulnerable when in possession such that any team of which he is the fulcrum must make provisions for the distinct possibility of conceding dangerous transitions in the centre of the pitch. And that is when facing opponents who do not bother assigning a ruffian to selectively hound him throughout the game. You do not need a Park Ji Sung to lessen Pirlo’s presence.
Luckily for the bianconeri, Barcelona are unlikely to take to the field with so discriminatory an assignment briefing. Nevertheless, it’s likely at some stage that Luis Suárez will drop back and harry Pirlo when he is on the ball or even when he is expecting a pass. Real Madrid throughout 2015 have been notably lacking in disruptive power in their midfield and yet they didn’t need such resources to make Pirlo uncomfortable in the semi-finals. Any flurry of activity that sees Messi, Suárez, Neymar and Iniesta, Daniel Alves and Ivan Rakitic congregating in and around Pirlo when Juve are in static defence could be damaging.
So, is there any remedy in sight? A measure that Allegri might take to dampen the abovementioned risks?
Well, the one season where Max and Andrea coincided at Milan did see the Livornese coach experiment by pushing the latter slightly forward to an interior-left position of his midfield diamond. But here Pirlo would be placed immediately in the vicinity of the self-sacrificial Ivan Rakitic. Besides, Lionel Messi is wont to drop back into an inside-right channel, often deep in midfield where Daniel Alves tends to loiter nowadays.
Then there is the option of inserting Pirlo in a trequartista role: the logic here being that any loss of possession on his part is less damaging to Juve’s defence seeing as how he is further distanced from Gigi Buffon’s goal. But such a measure risks submerging Pirlo completely. True, we might view this formula as trading off his commanding-role in midfield (something you can’t bank on nowadays anyway) for a series of more punctuated albeit decisive interventions. On the other hand, this prospect goes to waste if Juventus cannot furnish him with the ball in this situation.
And neither can we discount the utility of Pirlo in dead-ball situations – though to overstate this is to advocate for Pirlo’s inclusion in the guise of an American football kicker – a device to which Allegri simply cannot resort.
Set-pieces aside, to my mind it seems that Juve’s best hope of threatening Barcelona is twofold: Vidal-Pogba-Marchisio breaking down play either in central midfield or in wide areas and then feeding Tevez and Morata to run at Barça’s back-two. The other instance would be whereby Pirlo has enough time on the ball to pick out a penetrating pass to his strike duo. Both are fraught with complications.
The first route might run ashore on the grounds that the Busquets-Iniesta-Rakitic-Messi hive of activity could simply triangulate the living daylights out of Juve’s undoubtedly dynamic midfielders – especially were the latter too proactive and hence positionally diffuse in their ball-winning approach. Furthermore, for all their propensity to scoot out wide, such a disposition by likes of Pogba, Vidal and Marchisio might only serve to thin out Juve’s center in the hope of congesting the wide areas where Barça under Luis Enrique have shown themselves much more adept at building up play than in their previous incarnations. As to the second attacking option: it assumes that Pirlo will not be harried when on or near the ball, a supposition that Allegri will not make.
All of the above rests on the premise that Juve, as per custom, align themselves in something approaching a ‘4 – plus Pirlo – plus 3 – plus 2’ layout, and the comforts offered by this are apparent. The midfielders ahead of Pirlo can labour and create in herculean mode, whilst the regista faces no direct midfield opponent (owing to Barça’s foregoing of any fixed trequartista). A duo of Tévez and Morata carry enough mobility and muscle to work across Barça’s backline so as to warrant caution amongst Piqué, Mascherano and even their full-backs lest they think about stepping out to augment their midfield.
Yet it was the same arrangement as faced Real Madrid and Pirlo didn’t look the anymore effective for it. I wonder whether there is another arrangement that might protect Juve from being ostraicised in midfield whilst providing Pirlo with enough tranquility to play consistently.
Juventus’s positional defence is something of a surety when it assumes the form of three centre-backs; that time-tested, national-team serving arrangement. Allegri has preferred a back-four but the groundwork laid by Antonio Conte’s chain-of-five has been ingrained in the juventino muscle-memory whereby Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra can switch seamlessly from full-back to wing-back duties . If Juventus’s back five can behave as an integral unit, this opens an array of outlets for their build-up play.
Under Conte, the bianconero wing-back system boasted a poly-faceted face: rather than being condemned to defend as a five, the wing-backs co-ordinated their respective movements whereby one could defend as a wide-midfielder whilst the other dropped into the backline as an orthodox full-back.
Such flexibility could afford Allegri’s men the option of projecting one or both full-backs whilst keeping the centre-backs plus their sweeper behind Pirlo. A similar deployment was made by Cesare Prandelli at Euro 2012 where his Italy side had Emmanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio push upfield at every opportunity, thereby leaving Pirlo to crown a defensive diamond also comprising Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and, crucially, Daniele De Rossi. If Arturo Vidal were to replicate De Rossi’s Euro 2012 role, a Juve defender in search of a passing option need not resort to Bonucci’s (admittedly precise) long-range passing in the event of Pirlo being closed down. Vidal has assuredness on the ball coupled with a nimbleness and mobility to skip past challenges and liberate Pirlo, who then may take up a position in space where he can assess the passing options further upfield of him.
Another possiblity would be if Allegri were to task Evra and Lichtsteiner with alternating their advances (one staying, the other going forward) as if in a chain movement, which in turn would allow a sweeper to step out and assist Pirlo safe in the knowledge that a back three was guarding to the rear. Here, Pirlo and Vidal would be effectively operating as twin deep-lying pivots.
In either scenario, it is crucial that Carlos Tévez act as a fourth, most-advanced midfielder, dropping in on Sergio Busquets so that the Barcelona man might be hindered in aiding Rakitic and Iniesta in the manoeuvering of the ball in behind Juve’s interiors and into the fleshy centre where Pirlo lies exposed. If this were to happen, Vidal would be expected to rush out and stagger a defence just behind Pirlo, recalling César Luis Menotti’s dictum that “two footballers in a line is a sin”.
The understandable objection to any notion of stationing Vidal in the defence is that any midfield deliberately shorn of the Chilean is a denuded outfit in all phases of play. But such an evil might be worth entertaining, given that the task ahead of Juve is not to match Barça’s midfielders man-to-man, nor to commit to a 90-minute herculean enterprise of ball-robbing, much less is it to contest ball possession with the blaugranas. Rather, it is to capture space and time for Pirlo, this lesser, time-ravaged and nonetheless totemic Pirlo, so that at he at best may the originator of Juve’s attacking forays, and that at worst he may not go unnoticed.