In Gdansk on Sunday, the three amigos – Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo – will be together on the pitch for the first time. Spain’s clash with Italy, the opening game of Group C, will feature the three most prolific passers in European football.
This should have happened long ago, but circumstances conspired against this meeting of minds, this rendezvous of registas. In April 2004, when Spain travelled to Genoa for a friendly, Pirlo played for Italy, but Xavi was brought on for Alonso, rather than joining him in midfield. Never mind. Four years later in Elche, Alonso came on as a substitute alongside Xavi, but Pirlo had already been substituted. Maybe next time? No -- at the European Championships of 2008, Pirlo was suspended for the quarterfinal clash, and then during last year’s friendly in Bari, Xavi missed the game through injury.
Barring a surprise selection, these three will finally play in the same match at the same time.
In European terms, these are the three most influential passing midfielders of the century. Each a World Cup winners, each a European Cup winner. Others have had the talent but struggled to find a club who appreciated their talents, some have performed consistently at club level, but failed to take their game to the international stage. These three are the true greats: physically unremarkable yet outstandingly talented. Quiet off the pitch, yet leaders on it.
All are now into their thirties, yet remain as influential as ever. This season, across Europe’s major five leagues, no player passed the ball as often as these three: Xavi did so 94 times per match, Pirlo 86 and Alonso 78. It shows their constant impact upon games – they’re permanently available for a pass in the center of the pitch, never content to hide behind an opponent, always dropping deep, drifting sideways, anything to find a pocket of space and launch an attack.
When someone is debating the best passing midfielder involved in a particular game, and Alonso isn’t even part of the two-way debate, you know you’re in for a treat.
Pirlo is the odd man out, of course, as the sole Italian. But the other two have lavished praise upon him in anticipation of their meeting. “Pirlo has always put himself forward as a reference point for seeking ever more beautiful football,” says Alonso. “I always liked Pirlo, because he never wanted to be a protagonist off the field, so ended up being one for what he does on the pitch.”
“In Pirlo,” Xavi begins, “Italy have a genius with the ball.” Pirlo, like Xavi, was heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola in his playing days, describing him as “the maestro ... the model for his vision of the game.” He shares that admiration with Xavi, of course, but also Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets too.
In truth, Pirlo has the grace and style of a Spanish midfielder. While Cesare Prandelli has experimented with various different forwards, and is still unsure of whether to use a three- or a four-man defense, Pirlo is the permanent central midfielder. He’s one of the older players in the side, but also the symbol of the new Italy; Prandelli is an open, attacking coach, and a huge fan of Spain. “They are undoubtedly the strongest team of the moment, with a whole fleet of class players,” he says.
And, like Spain, Prandelli prefers gifted, technical central midfielders, trying to accommodate as many as possible. “Many of [the players] felt the time had come to play – I won’t say a different type of game, because in football there is nothing new – but something else,” he says, describing Italy’s change in style under his leadership. “Given that I have plenty of quality midfielders, I felt we should play to our strengths.”
But of those midfielders, Daniele De Rossi is likely to start as a center back, Riccardo Montolivo continues to frustrate, and Claudio Marchisio is yet to bring his Juventus form to international level. The onus upon Pirlo is huge, although he might be joined by Thiago Motta, another who shares Spanish traits despite being Brazilian-born and an Italian international: he was brought through Barcelona’s youth system a couple of years after Xavi.
The Spanish players respect Pirlo, and therefore acknowledge how important it is to stop him. “He's the player that carries the Italian midfield,” says back-up goalkeeper Victor Valdes. “Everything goes through him … they are always looking for that assist from Pirlo. We'll have to keep an eye on him and see how we can counter that type of play.”
This brings to mind the compliments Barcelona players lavished upon another deep-lying passing midfielder, Michael Carrick, ahead of the 2009 Champions League final. Xavi described him as “a complete player”, his teammates spoke not of Cristiano Ronaldo’s threat from long range, nor the movement of Wayne Rooney, but of Carrick’s distribution. When the final came, every time Carrick got the ball, Barcelona pressed him immediately. That they may have been wearing Barcelona shirts rather than Spain shirts that day, but Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets will again be present in Gdansk this weekend. Pirlo can expect the “Carrick treatment.”
Pirlo is a much more accomplished player than Carrick and won’t be scared by the attention, but he rarely faces such constant pressure on the ball in Italy. In Serie A, relatively few sides press, instead preferring to stand off and get into a good defensive shape in their own half. When Pirlo does have a direct opponent, it’s often been an opposition trequartista or a forward, asked casually to drop onto Juventus’ chief playmaker to help his midfied. Often they’re disinterested, and Pirlo can skip a couple of yards either side, find space, then launch a diagonal out to the flank.
When a team puts more of an effort into shutting Pirlo down, he is much less effective. In February, Milan used the speedy Urby Emanuelson in the centre of the pitch against him, using his energy to get into Pirlo’s face. For the first time in a Juventus shirt, Pirlo looked rattled and his influence on the game was minimal against his former club.
It will be different against Spain, who will probably look to pressure Pirlo as a unit rather than use one player solely up against him. But the Spanish player closest to Pirlo will be Xavi, used at the head of Spain’s midfield triangle, higher up than he plays with Barcelona. Those two should be battling directly in the center – the two most prolific passers in Europe, head-to-head in an individual battle.
Xavi will get tight and try to stop Pirlo’s long balls, which he can hit with either foot. Pirlo will have to be clever with his positioning, as Xavi will drop deep into the midfield and play simple square balls, much more tricky to prevent. It will be a fascinating battle between two beautiful players, sharing an ideology, yet possessing different characteristics. “Pirlo is better than Xavi,” ventured Luis Suarez, the former Barcelona player who also spent twelve years in Serie A, and later managed the Spanish national side. “Xavi plays it short with few errors, but Pirlo plays it long and accurately.”
When someone is debating the best passing midfielder involved in a particular game, and Alonso isn’t even part of the two-way debate, you know you’re in for a treat. If Pirlo doesn’t exchange shirts with either Alonso or Xavi at fulltime, something’s gone wrong.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.