With Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo set to return to former club Milan this weekend, Adam Digby measures the impact of the bearded maestro in Turin...
He smiled as they gave him a pen, an engraved Cartier embossed with the Milan club logo that perhaps made the perfect gift for a long time supporter of the Rossoneri. But for a player who is possibly the greatest Italian midfielder of all time, Andrea Pirlo felt that, after so many years in those famous red and black stripes, he deserved so much more.
Having just helped to deliver the second league title of that period, he had taken his trophy haul with the San Siro giants to nine major honours – including the 2003 and 2007 Champions League crowns – and it was hard to disagree with his point of view. More than 400 appearances meant the gesture seemed like a slap in the face.
“It was a lovely pen, but still a pen. Filled with banal blue ink,” he wrote last year in his autobiography, Penso Quindi Gioco (I think, therefore I play). “Adriano Galliani told me, 'Make sure you don’t use that to sign a new contract with Juventus'.” Unfortunately for the Milan Vice-President and all connected with the club, the Flero native would do just that.
“As a goodbye gift I expected something more than that perfect comic timing. My 10 years of Milan, gone like that. I smiled anyway,” Pirlo wrote - although probably not with that same pen.
After a decade of seeing him as a rival, fans of the Turin giants would embrace the midfielder who would look immediately at home in Turin. In his first game, he would be utterly dominant in a way he hadn’t been in the entire previous campaign, completing no fewer than 110 passes and helping his new side brush Parma aside 4-1. The midfielder would contribute two assists, including a wonderful ball that floated over the top of the visitors' defence for Stephan Lichsteiner to net the first official goal at Juventus Stadium.
Finest regista of the modern era
“Milan has lost a fantastic player," the then Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said of the man he had identified in 2004 as the only current midfielder to possess similar characteristics to his own playing style. Pirlo would go on to enjoy a remarkable campaign, making almost 3,200 passes and adding another 11 assists to that opening day pair, both totals being by far the highest in Serie A that year.
The figures were staggering, but Pirlo was still the same player Carlo Mazzone uncovered at Brescia, the presence of Roberto Baggio forcing the then 22-year-old playmaker into a deeper role. Learning to sit in front of the defence and build play, he would carve out a career as the finest regista of the modern era, able to break up attacks and then launch brilliant counters. His vision was unsurpassed, often picking out passes than nobody else on the field could even imagine.
That continued throughout his time at Milan where Carlo Ancelotti deployed him in exactly the same role, the two men perhaps the most important figures in those successes mentioned earlier. Then the coach moved on, and in his place came Massimiliano Allegri, a provincial coach with a desire to shift the midfield focus. Intent on replacing craft and guile with effort and endeavour, the former Cagliari tactician filled the team with willing runners like Kevin-Prince Boateng, Mathieu Flamini and Massimo Ambrosini.
His changes left Pirlo with the option to either play wide on the left or move on, and to him it was no choice at all. “A fish breathes when it is in deep water,” he continued in his book. “It makes do when near the surface, but it’s not the same thing.” Denied the chance to swim where he wanted, the 2006 World Cup winner never even discussed money with Galliani and Milan, realising he could no longer continue at a club where he was no longer considered central to the project.
Antonio Conte and Juventus would give him that from day one, placing him between Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal who allowed him to express himself the way always has. He would follow that remarkable unbeaten campaign in 2011/12 with 2,500 passes last term with another seven assists, and this year he has already completed almost 1,500 passes with three more assists.
His goal tally has been steady too, netting 11 times in Serie A across those three seasons, continuing to draw ever closer to the free-kick record of 28 held by Siniša Mihajlović. Indeed, of his goals for La Madama, no fewer than nine have come from set-pieces, putting him just four behind the Serbian as Serie A’s all-time leader.
Althugh Pirlo has been instrumental in the four trophies Juve have won since he arrived, many had begun to question his continued excellence, wondering aloud whether the Bianconeri would be right to offer him a new contract this summer. More than his performances, it was perhaps his absence from the side in December that truly showed how valuable he remains.
Limping off in the first half of the win over Udinese on December 1, tests revealed that a tackle from Andrea Lazzari had resulted in a tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, an injury which would require surgery.
Missing the bearded maestro
He would miss just five games, and although Juve remained irrepressible domestically, they lost to Galatasaray and were dumped out of the Champions League. While the weather conditions and state of the Istanbul pitch certainly contributed to the Old Lady's downfall, the lack of creativity without their bearded maestro was hugely evident.
And so, with two-and-a-half years of brilliance behind him, Andrea Pirlo and Juventus travel to Milan together this Sunday, with the player’s future once again coming into question. The three-year contract he signed with the Bianconeri comes to an end this summer but, despite turning 35 before that stage, he has no intention of retreating abroad for a lucrative payday.
Real Madrid and even Milan have been reported as possible destinations, with SportsMediaSet reporting last weekend that new coach Clarence Seedorf is keen to be reunited with his former team-mate. It is hard to imagine him returning to San Siro however, and Pirlo made his view of the Rossoneri quite clear in an interview with La Stampa this week. "Would I go back to Milan?” he pondered in coversation with the Turin-based newspaper. “No, not now.”
He has enjoyed playing against his former club for the grand Old Lady of Italian football, with Sunday set to be the sixth league meeting with Milan since he left. Juventus have won three and drawn one of those games, with the only loss coming at San Siro in November 2012. Pirlo has started in each encounter, as well as featuring in three Italian Cup games which yielded two more wins and a draw.
Pirlo appears to relish putting Milan to the sword, and did just that in this season’s previous meeting, at Juventus Stadium back in October. Already conducting the Bianconeri attack, he curled home a trademark free kick in the 15th minute to equalise, following Sulley Muntari’s early strike. There would be no muted celebration, as he wheeled away joyfully the second he realised Christian Abbiati couldn’t prevent the goal and from there his influence only grew.
He would strike the woodwork with another swerving effort and worked hard defensively to recover the ball eight times, but as always it would be his passing which truly shone, completing 55 of 63 attempts. Constantly probing and finding space between those who had taken his place in the Milan midfield, he created two more excellent chances for his new team-mates, steering them to a 3-2 victory. Joining them in celebrating the win with the home crowd, the smile across his face was slightly broader than the rest, knowing he had once again shown how badly Milan had misjudged him.
"I'm happy to be at Juve,” he continued in that same La Stampa interview. “I think that players don't have to go back to where they once did good things. I hope to remain here."
Juventus recognise his importance, and supporters hope an agreement can be found in the coming months. Andrea Pirlo certainly has the perfect pen with which to sign his new deal.