Andrea Barzagli and Andrea Pirlo arrived in Juventus for a combined fee of 0.3 million Euros. Yet these two players were two strong pillars of the unexpected Scudetto triumph of Juventus.
Andrea Barzagli : Back to his best
Life has really come a full circle for Andrea Barzagli this season.
In mid-2000′s, Barzagli was one of the hottest defensive prospects in Italian football. His performances earned him a national team call-up and he eventually ended up with a World Cup medal in his very first appearance in the tournament. 2008 was a threshold year for Barzagli. After a series of impressive performances during qualifiers, coupled with Fabio Cannavaro’s shock injury just before the tournament – Barzagli was part of the starting central defense for Italy in the opening match of Euro 2008.
The Barzagali – Marco Materazzi defense were in shambles against the Dutch might allowing three goals past them. Despite being slow starters, Italy had not made worse start to a big tournament in decades. Barzagli’s horror show was enough to sideline him for remaining matches. With a young Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini rising to the occasion, Barzagli’s national career almost ended after that defeat to the Dutch.
Come Euro 2012, Andrea Barzagli has gone to hell and came back unscratched. It will not be an over-statement to say that Barzagli turned his career around after Euro ’08. Despite winning a league title in Germany, Barzagli’s career graph went downwards steadily. When Juventus Sporting Director Giuseppe Marotta made a surprise purchase of the defender in winter of 2010, it was met with a very indifferent reaction.
At best, he was expected to be a backup. One of the earliest contributions was to provide a cross for a brilliant Luca Toni header in a league match against Cagliari. Even during the Delneri era at Juventus, Barzagli showed signs of improvement but not enough to grab headlines. Things dramatically changed under Antonio Conte as Barzagli not only became most reliable defender for Juventus but also became crux of the defence which statistically was the best in Europe.
Despite his performances this season Barzagli still remains relatively under-rated. However, his importance in Conte’s system is incredible. In last few seasons Juventus has struggled due to lack of a calm organizer at the back. Chiellini, despite being a ball winner par excellence has never been someone who keeps the defensive shape intact. Barzagli has calmly and unassumingly taken over the role, freeing both Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon from extra responsibilities.
His presence is also vital for the type of game played by fellow Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci. Despite being a central defender Bonucci has always shown a tendency of playing long, ambitious passes. This often leads to loss of possession but Antonio Conte didn’t try to curb it. Instead, Bonucci’s long range passing has become one of the many avenues for Juventus to launch attacks. Barzagli’s calm presence at the back means that Bonucci can play those passes knowing that his partner will be sweeping behind in case of a miss-pass.
Barzagli’s stats for the season make an interesting reading. The number of successful tackles (63) he has made pales in comparison to his central defensive partners (Chiellini has 102), further emphasizing the organizer role he has played in the team. The number of interceptions he made for Juventus, 92 is second highest in the squad behind Chiellini. The most heartening aspect of his play has been the meager number of bookings he collected, four – three of them coming in a 5 match period in early 2012.
Andrea Barzagli was possibly the most consistent defender in not only Serie A but perhaps across all European leagues. He rarely made a mistake and often covered up for errors made by his fellow defenders during their poor runs of form. Barzagli’s transfer for a throwaway price has become Beppe Marotta’s verison of Cannavaro-Carini swap transfer.
Four years after the massacre against Netherlands, Barzagli is once again back to the level which he was once hoped to reach.
Andrea Pirlo : Still the best
Everything that can be said about Andrea Pirlo has already been said. The Lombardy born midfielder is undoubtedly a once-in-a-generation player and Italy is yet to find a player who can fill up his laser-director fitted boots. Pirlo’s quality was never a doubt but when Juventus decided to snap him up on a free transfer there were some murmurs of discontent. The Milan legend had been off-color in last 2 seasons and there were doubts about his fitness as well.
All these doubts would wither away as the season progressed with Pirlo weaving his magic wand again and again. In a system which focused on retention of possession the importance of a player like Pirlo, who has the ability to control pace of the match singlehandedly, is immense. Thanks to the energy and guile of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, Pirlo usually had enough time and space in midfield.
His stats this season speak for themselves. With 13 assists in Serie A (his personal best till now) Pirlo is not only the highest assists-man in the league but has sixth best number across top leagues. 13 is also the number of assists Pirlo provided during his last 2 seasons in Milan, combined. The last time he reached double figures for assists for a season (not just Serie A) was back in 2007/08. There are other incredible stats as well.
He has played 2722 successful passes out of 3134 attempted; while there are players with better percentage but no one except Xavi matches him in sheer volume. Pirlo’s 125 key passes played this season is highest in Europe. To put things in perspective, David Silva and Mesut Ozil, two players in exceptional form this season, have raked up 98 and 100 key passes respectively.
Thanks to industry of the likes of Lichtsteiner, Pepe and De Ceglie, Juventus have often exploited opponents on the flank. One of the common themes of Juventus attacks has been wingers getting past opposition full-backs to latch on to a Pirlo long pass. His 410 successful long passes out of 483 is the second best in Europe. Xabi, considered to be one of the best in the world in this department has 322 successful passes out of 408 attempted in comparison.
But talking about Pirlo’s offensive abilities is just half the story. For a player who was rarely known for work-rate and defensive duties, Pirlo’s robustness for Juventus has been exceptional. The number of successful tackles executed by the man known as metronome is more than that of Barzagli or Bonucci and a shade worse than Marchisio. With 64 successful interceptions, Pirlo gives stiff competition to his younger Juventus midfield mates Vidal (71) and Marchisio (70). Pirlo played in every Serie A match for Juve this season bar one and this is another personal highest number for him.
Andrea Pirlo’s quality or class never deserted him but what he needed was a new challenge. Antonio Conte and Juventus provided him one. Conte’s motivational skills have been lauded across the peninsula throughout Juventus’ triumphant campaign. Pirlo’s tears after winning the Scudetto, not his first by any means, was proof enough to see how much passion Conte had instilled in him.
The 30th (officially 28th) Serie A title won by Juventus was a team effort to a large extent but Pirlo and Barzagli stand out from rest of the team due their far reaching impact over the way Bianconeri have handled things this season.
All stats from http://www.whoscored.com