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Pirlo: photo by Matteo Marini
Why Verratti is not Pirlo's successor in the Italian 'Nazionale'
The PSG young talent moves differently along the pitch and has other skills compared to Andrea Pirlo. Verratti has a bright future with the Azzurri jersey, but not in Pirlo's same position
by Ben Cousins
Whenever I spot an exciting new player and want to discuss him with someone, I find myself desperately searching for someone to compare him with. Most of us do this, as if new players are regularly generated in a slot machine stocked with a limited combination of previous players' legs, bodies and hairstyles. Once players get towards retirement there appears to be an underground organisation of football-scout cum repo-men, eagerly sawing off Ronaldinho's feet whilst they poke out of his bed, quickly allocating them to the next lucky 17 year old.

And although this probably isn't the case, new players arrive each season, and we are fed all sorts of awful comparisons. We have Romelu “The New Drogba” Lukaku and Jese “Ronaldo” Rodriguez; but all that these players really have in common is that they play the same position and look reasonably similar. One of the latest comparisons I've heard is that of Marco Verratti and Andrea Pirlo.

This is often mentioned in reference to the Italian national team; at 34 Pirlo may just be playing his last ever tournament this summer, so seeking a replacement for him is only logical.

But can this even be done? Pirlo is the ultimate regista, controlling and manipulating games in a way no one else on the planet can do. His recent assist for Stephan Lichtsteiner against Inter was simultaneously incredible yet something he does most games. Every attack is supervised by him, and Juve look askew without him.

Marco Verratti is nothing like the same player, currently ability-wise, but primarily in terms of his playing style.

This is by no means a slight on the Pescara born midfielder; in his own way he has unbelievable potential. His impressive pass accuracy of 92% this season is actually better than Pirlo's 88,6% and he even has as many assists. But he has achieved this playing a different role.

Whilst Pirlo sits behind the shield of Pogba and Vidal, Verratti plays as the shield for Thiago Motta. He steps forward often, pressing the ball high up the pitch and stepping in to intercept passes the moment a counter attack starts, whereas Pirlo's defensive contribution is typically when the opposition are in possession. Consequently the tackling statistics also favour PSG's number 24, with his average of 2.7 a game eclipsing Pirlo's 1.5.

Verratti's attacking mannerisms are also of a different nature, where he resonates more with the Spanish tiki-taka style of football than the Italian Catenaccio. Making every subtle effort to float imperceptibly across the field into unmarked positions, always offering his team-mates an option, he perhaps resembles a Xavi or Iniesta more than anything. His outrageous agility and flair give him the ability to evade and slalom between opposing players, working in combination with his composure to create an awesome force of dribbling artistry and ball retention.

However this elusiveness does not grant him better attacking output, particularly regarding chance creation, where his high number of assists may be down to the prolificacy of PSG's attackers. Despite featuring in a more withdrawn role Pirlo averages 2.4 key passes a game compared to Verratti's 0.8. The Architect manages more crosses too, with his 2 per game dwarfing Verratti's 0.1.

In addition to his evidently superior creativity, Pirlo is regarded as one of the greatest set-piece takers still playing. This is a massive asset for any side, something that Italy will no doubt miss. Very few players develop into expert free kick takers over time and the chances of Verratti managing this are slim, especially with the lack of practice he is afforded when surrounded by Zlatan, Motta and now Yohan Cabaye. He could feasibly be pretty good at them one day, but turning into one of the world's best is something else.


Pass accuracy   92% 88,6% 
Key passes   0,8 2,4 
Crosses  0,1
Turnovers   0,5 0,4 
Tackles   2,7 1,5 
(Percentage and data: average per game. Source:

He will surely be a world-beater one day, but Pirlo 2.0? Perhaps not.

And if he can't, an ominous and impending thought is that no one can replace Pirlo, or at least his role for the national side, meaning Italy may need to learn to play a different style. Riccardo Montolivo has attempted but not impressed in this role for Milan, Daniele De Rossi plays a similar but much less penetrative position for Roma, and clearly, Verratti is suited elsewhere.

In addition to this vacancy in the middle, the Azzurri potentially have a much more exciting future forward line than they do midfield, which feels jarring due to the saturation of talented midfielders this past decade. With Balotelli, El Shaarawy, Berardi and Insigne now exciting fans all over the country, the Italian philosophy may evolve. Verratti will play a massive part in this, but perhaps in a different function than many expect of him.

Tuesday, March 4 th, 2014
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