The passing of eras is always painful. We grow used to certain things done in a certain way and then suddenly one day wake up and see that what we are habituated to has already changed. It is slightly easier when it is just how we do is going to change, but when it involves parting with a favorite player, one we love, admire and consider a Bandiera for our favorite club then it becomes improbable to see him walking out to play in another club’s colors.
For a decade, maybe the entire watching period of some young Milan fans, Andrea Pirlo has been the fulcrum on which the Milan side has operated. Pirlo distinguished the entire Ancelotti era in front of defense and Ricky Kaka in front of the midfield. Kaka’s sale in 2008 was probably the cruelest blow on the fans. As a fan, it was the absolute nadir when the club maintained they had to sell the family jewels to stay afloat (Chief executive Adriano Galliani’s words after selling Kaka). Not a single Milanisti could come forward and say the club had done right. On hindsight, the unfortunate injuries that Kaka suffered at Real Madrid made it a huge bargain deal. But emotions are not tempered with business logic and to this day, Kaka remains a true fan favorite.
Whereas Kaka was sold at an astronomical price to one of the best clubs in the world, Andrea Pirlo chose to walk away on a free transfer. It is quite an unthinkable scenario, given how Milan treats its senior players. The Milan family, as President Silvio Berlusconi and Galliani emphasizes so often, has seen more number of players stay loyal to the Rossoneri for years before retiring at the club. This is in quite sharp contrast to most of the other big clubs in Italy in the last 25 years. That this strategy of loyalty was extended to its extreme was proved by how Milan became known as a team of geriatrics and a “retirement home”. So why did Andrea Pirlo walk away, on a free transfer, from such a huge family atmosphere and more importantly, why did Milan let him leave? After all, at 31(he turned 32 the day after he announced he is leaving Milan), he was the baby of those whose contracts were expiring in this summer. To put it into perspective, Pirlo is the youngest 30+ player in this Milan side (Abbiati, Ambrosini, Zambrotta, Oddo, Jankulovski, Van Bommel, Nesta, Yepes, Seedorf, Legrottaglie, Gattuso, Inzaghi are all 33+). Hence the logic of age is irrelevant. The other reason touted was money. But then the €6 million that Pirlo earned at Milan was beyond reach of all Italian clubs, and most certainly Juventus, where he is supposed to go. If he anyways has to take a pay cut, then why change colors after a 10-year relation?
Why Did Pirlo Leave?
The real reason for Pirlo leaving Milan thus points towards how his indispensable position as regista of all Milan sides for last 10 years was changed by Massimiliano Allegri. Pirlo’s unique style and genius of play had made him the best in that position in the world over a decade but when Allegri saw how Milan’s defensive frailties were repeatedly exposed by Cesena and Real Madrid in two distinctly different modes of play, as also the attacking riches that he possessed, he opted for a change in his defensive orientation. He moved a play breaker instead of a playmaker in front of the defense. The captain Massimo Ambrosini was selected for this role. Allegri found a new role for Pirlo though, as a creative outlet on the left of midfield. For a period of time, this seemed a masterstroke but the conversation was how Pirlo would adapt to this role. He was doing relatively well with a few well-earned assists and a contender for the goal of the season against Parma. However the injury he suffered against Roma in the last match of the year changed all that. A botched comeback attempt and another bout of injury lay off meant we never had the chance to see Pirlo in that left midfield role that Allegri had identified for him.
Two things had happened by the time Pirlo did recover to become match fit. The effect of Marc van Bommel as the defensive cover in front of the central defenders had made Milan the meanest of defenses and indeed at the end of the season, Milan’s 24 goals conceded was a record for Serie A. Of those 24, only 6 were conceded after Van Bommel started playing (14 matches). Thus he became an absolute unmovable object in that position. The second thing was the resurgence of Clarence Seedorf in the 2nd half of the season. From being ridiculed for his culpability in that 4-4 home draw with Udinese, most fans were won over by Seedorf’s leadership and intelligent play which saw him garner 4 goals, each of which were defining in Milan’s late season sprint to the Scudetto. Seedorf was of course playing in that left midfield creative role.
Allegri had made it quite clear that Milan did not require Pirlo as a regista. The only position, and for which Pirlo would have to fight was on the left of midfield with Seedorf. Looking ahead to the next season, if, a proper trequartista, like Paulo Henrique Ganso joined, then Kevin Prince Boateng could also fill in the left midfield spot. With the on-field success earned this year the management was obviously less desperate to allay Pirlo’s fears about his indispensable spot in the team. The best that was offered to Pirlo was a rotation spot with significant reductions in salary. The other thing was Galliani’s insistence on only offering a 1-year deal to all 30+ players whose contracts were expiring. Being only 32 at the end of the season, Pirlo quite rightly wanted a 2-year contract at the least. He could even show the example of Gennaro Gattuso – thought of as surplus to requirements by Leonardo in 2009-10 where the player suffered many injuries; Gattuso was on the verge of leaving the club. However Galliani ensured Gattuso stayed on and extended his contract till 2012. Pirlo expected similar treatment from the management. Was he justified in those expectations? No if you consider the performances when Pirlo was fit. The Yes would only stem from his stature at the club.
Did Galliani miss a step in making an exception for Pirlo by maybe offering him a 2-year role? If that was the clinching argument, then it is a gross mistake as Pirlo easily has a good 2-3 years at the top. However it seemed like a combination of first team guarantee plus the contract length that convinced Pirlo. Galliani could give Pirlo a 2-year contract but Allegri could not guarantee a confirmed starting spot to Pirlo.
Did Allegri miss anything in handling Pirlo? Again opinions differ but maybe there was a situation where Pirlo could have been taken aside to assure he would only give importance to performances on the field and promising Pirlo that he would be given a fair chance to show he could succeed in that left midfield position.
What Milan Fans Would Miss From Now?
Could Pirlo have done something differently? A champion should not take a step backwards, but could Pirlo accept the challenge that Allegri had thrown at him? Should he have asked for a contract probably based on first team appearances made and then put in the kind of performances in the field, which would have ensured Allegri never contemplates dropping him? I know what answer I would have preferred. Pirlo even had the example of Clarence Seedorf – ridiculed openly by the fans after some displays, he came back to prove that he was indeed a maestro by masterminding Milan’s final charge towards the Scudetto. His long time mates, Gattuso (last year) and Ambrosini (this year) extended their contracts on such premises. Gattuso has revitalized himself under Allegri even scoring twice and one hopes Ambrosini too would do the same in the coming season. The greatest regret that Pirlo might have is that he did not take up the challenge and throw down the gauntlet. Of course he doesn’t have anything left to prove to any football enthusiast. But he would have risen a little bit higher in the eyes of millions of fans if he had taken this challenge. Instead the constant speculation for 3 months that Pirlo had agreed a deal with Juventus harmed his reputation.
And Surely, Pirlo Would Miss This Atmosphere!
Remarkably there was no bitterness from anyone and lots of sentiment and reminiscences on the aftermath of Pirlo’s decision. It was termed a mutual divorce on most amicable terms. Galliani presented Pirlo with a medal commemorating 400 official appearances made in Rossoneri colors. Pirlo profusely thanked and showed his emotions about leaving his home and teammates of 10 years.
Nothing succeeds like success. Milan has chosen to follow a path that has landed a Scudetto after 7 years. The club believes in the vision of Allegri and has promised to recruit the players that would give more solidity to the midfield. Pirlo has chosen to follow a path, which has seen him become arguably the all time best in his position. He would surely win many more laurels for the Azzurri and whichever club he chooses to join. Wherever he goes, he would forever remain an honorary Milanista and a true Milan legend.
An all time legend
– Debopam Roy
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