If you had to summarise the career of Andrea Pirlo in one sweeping-statement, you would compare him to a fine wine – something that simply gets better with age.
The Italian midfield maestro, who currently resides in America with New York City, announced earlier this month that he intends to retire from the game when the current MLS season concludes. When he finally hangs up his boots later this year it will bring an end to a fascinating and glamorous career in modern football, with Pirlo stepping away as one of the most respected and esteemed players of his generation in addition to a trophy cabinet that is overflowing with achievements.
Pirlo has won a total of six Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia’s, two Champions League trophies and the World Cup in a playing career that has exceeded two decades. However, despite his on pitch success, it is his playing style and role as a deep-lying playmaker that has attracted the admiration of football supporters across the globe.
The Italian is renowned for his artistry, intelligence, vision and range of passing. He operates in a quarterback-like role, picking up the ball in deep positions before spraying a range of sweeping passes across the pitch to commence attacks. Pirlo has become a master of ball retention and redistribution, acting as a midfield conductor who controls the ebb and flow of the game whilst shaping the attacking intentions of his team. To watch him play is a thing of beauty.
Despite his current repute, it is important to remember that Pirlo’s early career was not characterised by the success that would define his later years. In fact, the Italian had to dramatically reinvent himself, his game and his playing style in order to construct a sustainable playing career.
Reinvention and triumph
Andrea Pirlo made his professional debut for his hometown side Brescia Calcio, then a second-tier Italian club, in 1995 as a sixteen-year-old, having only joined the academy system two years earlier.
However, the formative years of his career would prove to be a defining learning curve for the diminutive youngster. Pirlo possessed an abundance of technical talent and intelligence but lacked any real athleticism, strength or power – he was a technician rather than a complete athlete – which raised questions over how he should be deployed on the pitch.
Initially he was utilised a second striker or an attacking midfielder, using his spacial awareness and astuteness to pick up the ball in dangerous positions between the oppositions midfield and defensive units. His early promise resulted in a transfer to Internazionale in 1998 but he failed to hold down a regular place in the first team at the San Siro and was quickly shipped out on loan. It became clear that Pirlo would need to reinvent his game in order to make an impact in Serie A, although it was unclear at the time how this would be achieved.
It was a move to cross-city rivals AC Milan in 2001 that stimulated the transformation of the midfielder’s game.
Pirlo had been utilised on a handful of occasions as a central midfielder during his loan spells, but it was Carlo Ancelotti that definitively saw his potential in a deeper role. Ancelotti recognised that the midfielder possessed vision, intelligence and an outstanding range of passing and immediately began to deploy Pirlo in a holding midfield role. Pirlo was partnered with Gennaro Gattuso, allowing him to shed much of his defensive responsibility, and he was given the freedom receive the ball from defenders and pull the strings from a deep position.
Success and trophies quickly followed – notably two Serie A titles and two Champions League trophies.
However, in 2011 AC Milan deemed that Pirlo was surplus to requirements as the club attempted to reconstruct a younger, fresher and more dynamic team. The suggestion that his best years were behind him were soon proven to be nonsense.
Pirlo joined Juventus and demonstrated that, if anything, his ability and talents were continuing to improve. He became one of the central figures in the team, providing the experience and intelligence to support the emerging talents of Paul Pogba, and helped the club to win four successive Serie A titles.
There was no replication of his Champions League success, having to be content with picking up a runners-up medal in 2015 following a defeat against Barcelona, but Pirlo had cemented his place as a genuine legend of the modern game.
In 2015 Andrea Pirlo joined MLS side New York City, effectively taking up semi-retirement and a stepping away from the highest echelons of the game.
It is worth noting that his success was also replicated in international football where he made 116 appearances for Italy, becoming the fourth most-capped player in Italian history, over a thirteen year period. Pirlo’s crowning achievement came in the 2006 World Cup where he played an instrumental role in helping his country to win the tournament, appearing in every minute of every game throughout the competition.
Andrea Pirlo is undoubtedly one of the most artistic, intelligent and gifted players of his generation, although he was required to reinvent his game and playing style in the early stages of his career. He will be remembered as a gifted midfield player who dictated the pace and tempo of the game with his vision and astonishing range of passing and his nickname L’Architetto (The Architect), stands as the perfect description of his playing style.