Pirlo: a square peg in New York City FC’s round hole

Everybody loves him, but Andrea Pirlo answers a question his new team didn’t ask, says Kris Heneage...

As the cameras trained their lenses on Andrea Pirlo, he surveyed Yankee Stadium. Dressed in a fetching cream cardigan and sporting a New York Yankees baseball cap, his style off the pitch was as effortless as his play on it.

His appearance had seemed to confirm the rumours – the Italian international was going to continue his career with New York City FC and end up on the pitch below.

He would be joined in the Big Apple by Frank Lampard, who had endured an inauspicious start to life in Major League Soccer after choosing to remain on loan in Manchester while the MLS season commenced.

With a combined age of 73, the duo are very much ‘veteran athletes’ and given that Pirlo is emerging from a Champions League final it would seem they are the kind of quality additions NYCFC need after a mixed start to the campaign. Unfortunately, that evaluation is a tad reductionist and a little too superficial.

Needing a new sofa, buying an antique lamp

They will both certainly sell shirts: wander the streets of New York and you will most likely see ‘PIRLO 21’ before a ball has even been kicked. On the field, an ageing mind is easier to maintain than an ageing body – making the 37-year-old a very valuable asset given how cerebral a midfielder he has been.

The problem emerges when you consider that Pirlo may not have been the type of player Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis had been seeking to recruit. Reports have been consistent that Reyna – the former Manchester City midfielder turned NYCFC Director of Football Operations – asked the City Football Group CEO Ferran Soriano for a much younger Designated Player: 27-year-old Colombian striker Fernando Uribe was one player consistently on the club’s radar.

Jason Kreis

Head coach Jason Kreis is already overstocked with midfielders

That memo did not make its away across the Atlantic to Manchester. They instead attempted to lure Xavi across from Spain, all while Kreis informed the club’s hierarchy that he was not the missing piece.

The truth is that the club is already well serviced in terms of midfielders

Equally, to say that NYCFC did not need Pirlo may sound an asinine statement. The truth is that the club is already well serviced in terms of midfielders – especially compared to their options in defence and attack.

The backline has at times given up soft goals; they recently conceded four to Toronto FC. The signings of Jefferson Mena, Andoni Iraola, and Angelino are intended to plug that leaky backline.

However, the attack still needs work and has not produced as consistently as the club would have liked. David Villa has broken double figures, but he stands virtually alone in the scoring charts. Patrick Mullins has provided four but with rookie Khriy Shelton scoring once and Adam Nemec yet to break his MLS duck, another high-powered forward – such as Uribe – could have helped the club’s play-off push.

Instead Kreis must now attempt to produce a tactic that maximises his three blue-chip players – Villa, Pirlo and Lampard. The new arrivals add to a strong midfield already boosted by a sizeable outlay on USA international Mix Diskerud and strong form from Andrew Jacobsen as well as the continued emergence of Kwadwo Poku. With Kreis often selecting just two men in central midfield, it seems a case of one too many.

Crushing Kreis’s diamond

At Real Salt Lake, Kreis was famed for his use of a diamond formation. This could in theory allow him to play Pirlo, Diskerud, and Lampard in one team – although it could also be easily overrun, with little mobility or physical presence. It provides another selection issue for Kreis, who has previously admitted he may have underestimated how difficult this season would be for himself and the club.

A 4-2-3-1 seems the most likely option, but it does not negate the bigger issues on show at the football club. As they had previously struggled to separate themselves from the Manchester City mothership, the episode with Frank Lampard was a major embarrassment. With the Third Rail supporters group voicing their frustration at the time, it would be fair to see similar grievances aired again.

Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard's move to New York has bordered on farcical

As they had previously struggled to separate themselves from the Manchester City mothership, the episode with Frank Lampard was a major embarrassment

Both Kreis and Reyna have considerable MLS experience. Kreis cultivated a successful Real Salt Lake side who not only collected a MLS Cup but also won numerous admirers. With each decision taken out of his hands and made at a higher level, the harder it becomes for the club to register a unique identity.

The idea that a big name will cure all ills is a misnomer. In years gone by, Designated Players have rarely been a harbinger of guaranteed success. The man for whom the rule was created – David Beckham – didn’t bring silverware to LA Galaxy until he had adjusted to the league and the Galaxy team was designed not just to maximise his strengths but also to cover his weaknesses. Given two of the current NYCFC midfield are closer to 40 than 30, it will provide another interesting examination of Kreis’ tactical versatility.

Harmony and dissonance

Meanwhile in the wider context, the situation will like put further strain on the City Football Group and Sorriano’s brainchild - one which dated back to his days at Barcelona.

What was supposed to be a harmonious interchange of ideas and assets among clubs strewn across the world at present looks slightly disjointed and awkward.

Pirlo is now waiting to make his Major League Soccer debut, bringing with him a delicate touch, years of experience and – according to the memorable phrase in Juventus’s parting statement – a “silent charisma”.

The hope now for Kreis and Reyna is that while the Italian provides a quiet charm, they can establish a voice of their own in the Big Apple, giving the club an identity that they built with their own pieces.