Andrea Pirlo is 33 years old. Just over a year ago, A.C. Milan decided that he was no longer quick enough and fit enough to play at the highest level of football. They were unwilling to take the risk of giving him a multi-year contract. He left for their direct scudetto rivals Juventus, and he won them them their first scudetto in either six or nine years, depending on who you ask.
Of course, Juventus had to surround him with the perfect personnel, which was the exact reason that Milan got rid of him. They didn't want a midfielder who couldn't slot into multiple types of squads with multiple types of personnel. Because for all of Pirlo's brilliance, he is certainly not versatile. Antonio Conte put him in a midfield with forward-thinking attacking midfielder Claudio Marchisio and rabid wolverine Arturo Vidal. They do the work, and Pirlo can sit back and be Pirlo.
If you are unfamiliar with the glorious stylings of Pirlo, you might be wondering why anyone would want to build their team around a 33-year-old who is slow and who will only make your team better if you surround him with the perfect complementary players. There's a very long answer, but here's the short answer.
He does this.
The list of players who regularly do that is tiny. Pirlo, Xavi, Luka Modric. That's about it. Andres Iniesta can do it if he ever accidentally ends up that deep on the pitch. Juan Roman Riquelme, who has aged much more quickly than Pirlo and Xavi, used to. But that's about the list of guys who regularly avoid losing the ball when trapped by a sea of defenders, then perfectly switch the point of attack. That's a guy worth building a midfield around.
On Sunday, and throughout this tournament, Italy built their midfield around him. He put in a dominant performance against England in his side's Euro 2012 quarterfinal, guiding them into the next round with a dazzling all-around display of defensive work, short passing, long passing and dribbling out of trouble when other players would have lost the ball.
He also had the stones to do this.
If you're thinking that Pirlo did this entirely because he read a scouting report on Joe Hart and was sure it was going to work, you're wrong.
Pirlo. Has just admitted on Italian TV that his kick was aimed at unsettling England's kickers.— Paul Grech (@paul_grech) June 24, 2012
And it worked. Ashley Young and Ashley Cole went on to miss their penalties. Young smacked the crossbar with his and Cole went to the same spot he always goes, except instead of curling his shot perfectly into the site netting, he put it in a place where Gianluigi Buffon could easily make a save. England lost on penalties. Again.
Just about everything that Pirlo touched turned to gold in an absolutely stunning performance on Sunday, as he completely dominated the game for 120 minutes. Italy couldn't finish the chances he created, but that's not really his job. His job is to put the players who play ahead of him in a position to succeed, and he did that perfectly. Statistics don't tell the entire story, but they do a good job at capturing a good part of it.
Pirlo touched the ball 155 times during the game, far more than any other player on his team.* Second was left back Federico Balzaretti with 118 touches, and fellow regista Riccardo Montolivo came in third with 117 touches. No two England players combined for 155 touches. Pirlo attempted 131 passes, 37 more than Montolivo. No two England players combined for more than 85 passes. He played a stunning 23 accurate long balls. All England outfield players, not counting goalkeeper Joe Hart, combined for a total of 20 accurate long balls. Pirlo also had three successful tackles while leading his team in interceptions with five -- incredible stats considering how little England saw of the ball and how few passes they attempted.
*All stats from WhoScored.
Those numbers are ridiculous, and telling of how much he dominated the game, but they still can't tell the entire story. There's no stat for the number of times a player manages to keep possession for his team when a replacement-level player would have lost the ball. The animated GIF above shows what was probably the most spectacular instance of this during the Italy-England match, but he did this on a regular basis. The only way to know how many times would be to watch the game and count, making judgment calls about whether or not an average player would have lost the ball.
The beauty and brilliance of Pirlo is that he is easily appreciated by both stat junkies and those who abhor statistical analysis. Someone who has never seen a match in their life can look at a box score and tell that Pirlo is an excellent player. Someone who has never looked up statistics in their life can tell just by watching Italy's games that no one has more influence on the game than Pirlo.
In four straight games for Italy, against top talent and average talent, and against teams who play various styles of football, he's been stellar. And yet, Sunday's performance was his magnum opus, both in his tournament and recent past. As good as he was in the group stage and as good as he's been for Juventus, he probably hasn't put in a performance like that since Milan's Champions League-winning campaign of 2007.
That's probably why Milan let him go in the end, but just because a player isn't able to physically take over every game doesn't mean he isn't valuable, something that Massimo Allegri learned quickly. He's signed Montolivo, Pirlo's national team counterpart, who is still the demonstrably less talented of the two registas in the azzurri squad.
Even at 33-years-old, Pirlo can take over games. He can still be the best player on a team that wins trophies. He's still better than Montolivo, and his team still needs him. If Italy upset Germany in the semifinals, it will be because Pirlo, supposedly too old and slow for a changing Milan side, finds enough in his legs to give another masterful performance on 46 hours of rest.