Milan vs. Juventus, a discussion on Andrea Pirlo's legacy... and which club it belongs to
After his announcement this week that he would retire from world football, messages poured in from both former teammates and opponents of Andrea Pirlo thanking him for a great career. There is no doubt that football fans share the sentiments, as Pirlo was one of the, if not the, best midfielders in the world from the early 2000s through 2015. He was a majestic player who excelled at free kicks and was able to place a pass wherever he wanted on the pitch with ease. His talents helped both his club and international teams achieve tremendous success, highlighted by a World Cup, two UEFA Champions Leagues and six Serie A championships.
Pirlo started his career with Brescia, and then was signed by Inter Milan. He was never really able to break into the Inter side, and they loaned him to Reggina and Brescia. It was at his loan spell with Brescia where Pirlo was converted from an attacking midfielder to a regista or deep-lying playmaker. He was then sold to AC Milan and his career really took off. After a very successful spell with the Milan giants where he won his two Champions League trophies as well as two Italian championships and many other trophies, he left for Juventus on a free transfer in the summer of 2011. Pirlo was reborn in Turin, and Antonio Conte started a career renaissance that saw the midfielder reach his best for another four seasons.
By now, most people know the history, but the move to Juventus sparked an interesting debate. A player that for long seemed part of Milan's DNA and history, now seemed as if he belonged to Juventus instead. In reality, Pirlo belongs to all of football in general thanks to his talent, ability and success, but it is interesting to debate which club he seems more tied to. In an effort to compare how Pirlo is perceived by both sets of fans today, we interviewed two experts on the subject. For the Juventus side, we spoke to Rav from juvefc.com ( twitter @juvefcdotcom), and for the Milan side we spoke to Sam Lewis (twitter @samcalcio), to discuss Pirlo's career and role in the game of football, the move to MLS and the overall question of which team will ultimately be tied to his legacy forever - all through the eyes of a Juventus supporter vs. an AC Milan supporter.
Pirlo's move from Milan to Juventus...
Rav (Juve): In all honesty, I was baffled by Milan's decision to let him go and slightly wary of us signing him. At that stage, we had spent 2 seasons in a row finishing in 7th place and had been promised much by Gigi Del Neri, and Ciro Ferrara before him. Both had offered a change in playing style and tactic's, and now we had Antonio Conte returning to Juventus and building his midfield around a player who had left Milan on a free. I was skeptical for much of the summer but all that changed the moment we set foot onto the pitch at Juve Stadium to face Parma on Sept 11th 2011 - 17 mins into the game, Pirlo runs forward unchallenged, looks to go wide and cuts back in, then floats the perfect ball into the box for Stephan Lichtsteiner to fire past Mirante. In that moment, I saw the brilliance of Conte's planning and more importantly, I saw that Andrea Pirlo was far from finished. As the season progressed, goals came from all over the pitch, we unearthed a star in Arturo Vidal, went a season undefeated, but at the heart of everything brilliant was the maestro, Andrea Pirlo. As we found out later, there had been issues between Allegri and Pirlo and that played a part him not staying on at Milan - in hindsight, signing Andrea at Juventus turned out to be one of the best pieces of business in the clubs history.
Sam (Milan): As a Milan fan, Pirlo leaving was a sad inevitability if you followed the narrative that surrounded his final months at Milanello. His injury in December 2010 took him out of coach Massimiliano Allegri's plans and the purchase of Mark Van Bommel while Pirlo was out was a key acquisition on the road to the Rossoneri's Scudetto in 2011. The template to success was a hardworking midfield where the creative presence was found in the more versatile Clarence Seedorf. Milan didn't have the requisite midfielders to surround Pirlo to emphasize his skill and as a result, he became surplus to Allegri's tactical requirement that season. Additionally, Adriano Galliani's new, somewhat illogical move to only offer one year extensions to over 30's forced Andrea's hand, who was just 31 and wanted to secure his future. Meanwhile, an Italian club were willing to give him a three year deal and build a team around him. As bitter a pill as it was to see my favourite player leave, it was understandable. Milan missed him greatly over the next three years.
Although Pirlo had many wonderful moments, what if your favorite memory of his individual brilliance in a club match?
Sam (Milan): Rather than an individual game or moment (though his FK vs Inter was particularly memorable) Pirlo's consistent greatness as the heart of Milan's midfield for several years was almost a highlight in itself. I remember him and Gattuso double teaming United at the San Siro in 2007, flitting in and out possession and keeping the ball moving, working Ferguson's side around the pitch. But it was the permanent fixture that Pirlo was, where an accurate pass or diagonally lofted chip was as inevitable as night following day.
Rav (Juve): For me personally, the 94th minute winner against Torino was absolutely unforgettable. Pirlo won the penalty that gave us the early lead that day, before Peres netted the equaliser for Toro to make it 1-1. Lichtsteiner made a reckless challenge near the end of the game and we were reduced to 10 men which gave the visitors the impetus to press us for the final 10 minutes. At 94 minutes, I was grateful to get a draw and waiting for the final whistle to blow when, against the run of play, we get the ball back and Vidal shapes to shoot before squaring it to Pirlo. It's definitely too far out to shoot and the Torino players are swarming in on Andrea....and before i realise it, he's hit it first time and it's already in the back of the net. It took a few seconds to realise what had happened. The camera cut to Allegri and he was walking into the dressing room with a huge grin on his face, Llorente was shouting on the sidelines and waving his hands in the air. That game, that moment of brilliance, that was Pirlo at his absolute finest. He could decide matches with a touch, a pass, a shot. While it wasn't a huge game to anyone looking from the outside in, it was a massive win for us against the city rivals....and it was won in typically 'Pirlo' style.
Aside from an individual moment of brilliance, in your opinion, what was Pirlo's best season, and which one saw him as the most important to his club?
Rav (Juve): I think it would be 2011/12, although many would probably put 2012/13 above it. For me, 2011/12 showed that he was far from finished as a player, and in that first season at Juve, everything started with him - The free kicks, the through balls, assists....everything. He was absolutely unplayable at times and his teammates were gradually learning to play at his level and think like him, just as we supporters were seeing him become arguably the most important player in the squad. Conte returned the grinta and fire to Juventus that season - He made us physical, strong and hungry again, and lying at the heart of that, protected by the muscle of the midfield and resolute defence was Andrea. In 2011/12, he provided the most assists in the Serie A (13), created over 100 chances, completed 2643 passes that season, with an 87% pass completion rate, completing 500 more passes than any other player in Serie A; Incredible.
Sam (Milan): For Milan, he was particularly brilliant during the 05-06 season as he came into his own as Rui Costa transitioned out of the starting line up. But as I mentioned earlier, it was his continual presence at the heart of Milan's midfield in the heyday of Ancelotti's midfield overall that became an inevitability; balancing out the grit of Gattuso and Ambrosini, the diligence of Seedorf. Man, what a team.
Pirlo had great years with both clubs, but in your opinion, which was he most valuable to and which did he play the bigger role in?
Sam (Milan): Tactically, Milan but for his legacy, Juventus. Carlo Ancelotti's decision to mimic Pirlo's transition to central midfield at Brescia when Andrea arrived from Inter allowed Pirlo to flourish as the central figure to an already talented midfield and laid the foundation for a continental force. Though, his rebirth at Juve following a year of anonymity at Milan; the arrival of the maestro coinciding with Conte's dramatic turnaround at the Bianconeri re-propelled Pirlo to the forefront of the Calcio zietgeist just as the modern football world were waking up to players of Pirlo's style. The obsession with Barcelona style football birthed a new found appreciation for Pirlo that was coupled with his magnificent performances in Euro 2012; particularly against England. Pirlo transcended from 'fancy but fragile' to footballing demi-god, complete with beard. However, he was the same brilliant Andrea we'd seen for a decade, the audience had simply changed around him.
Rav (Juve): I think he was of equal importance to both sides - The Milan side in the early 00's through to '10 was a team that only improved with each season. At their peak, they had Nesta, Gattuso, Kaka, Schevchenko, Cafu, Pirlo and countless others in their starting XI and won 2 Champions League titles and should have won a 3rd. His time at Juve seemed like a rebirth of sorts - It was reported that he'd fallen out with Allegri and at Juve, he found a coach who still believed in him and had the gumption to build his midfield (and his starting XI in many ways) around him. He became instrumental in the way we played, at the heart of the 3-5-2, pulling the strings, given licence to play in his own indomitable style.
Pirlo moved to NYCFC after his time at Juventus, and has been a bit of a disappointment. What were your thoughts on his move to MLS and his career there? Did you even follow any of his time there?
Rav (Juve): I have to admit, the summer when Pirlo left was a tough one - We lost Pirlo, Tevez, Vidal, Llorente and Coman in the space of a few months- While we made up for it in new signings, it was hard to see so many of those key players leave after being so fundamental to our 'rebirth' in 2011/12. I watched a few highlights of Andrea in NYCFC but with time constraints and a general preference for Serie A, I found it hard to follow his new career in the MLS, but I wanted him to be successful, no matter what.
Sam (Milan): Pirlo's move tells us more about the growing respect for MLS globally; joining Lampard/Villa/Drogba overseas portrays the surging popularity of football in the states. I didn't follow him closely but saw a few nostalgic highlights, it was clear Andrea enjoyed not being dogged by a mezz'ala in Verona any more.
How is Pirlo perceived by each respective fan base?
Sam (Milan): Sadly, his move to Juve and subsequent comments in his autobiography has chilled the relationship between him and Milanisti, who see him as a traitor in parts. I don't consider myself one of those fans, I recognise his logic in leaving as much as it hurt. He gave us a decade of brilliance, I'll always remember that. Many Milanisti don't share my view, however.
Rav (Juve): Andrea has always voiced a lot of support for Juventus, long after he left the club. I remember a quote before Juve v Milan where he said he would cheer for the Bianconeri due to having more friends in the squad there. Small things like that, his comments before the Champions League Final along with the 4 seasons he spent in Turin have secured his legacy at the club. Despite playing for Milan for a decade, we welcomed him with open arms and he repaid our faith, becoming the heartbeat of our midfield. When he left for NYCFC, I felt it was premature as he could still offer us plenty, but I understood it was a lifestyle choice and he could play on for a few more seasons without worrying about being benched. I think he'll always be remembered at the club with a lot of fondness and appreciation - He was there at the start of something truly special in the clubs history and without him, I really believe it would never have happened.
In some professional sports, especially those in the United States, when a player is inducted into a Hall of Fame, they must choose which team/club the player goes into the Hall of Fame under. If Pirlo were to go into a Hall of Fame, do you think he should go in with a Juventus or Milan jersey?
Rav: I would love to say Juve, as he won 4 titles in a row with us and played his part in getting us to a CL final.....but a decade in Milan, 2 Champions League titles and 2 league titles should mean that he's inducted into the Milan HOF, not that I'd be happy about it.
Sam: Great question, similar to the Lakers' decision to induct both #8 and #24 for Kobe Bryant, I'd argue there should be two jerseys hanging in the hall for Andrea. An Azzurri blue one, too.
Finally, what will Andrea Pirlo's legacy be?
Sam (Milan): Pirlo's greatness was in his consistency; remaining an unchanged gem as football changed around him, laying perfect pass after perfect pass as midfielders, tactics, eras and sporting culture shifted around his delicate boots. Unfazed, unconcerned, unmatched. Just another lofted ball over the centre-backs shoulder, as inevitable as time, as natural in it's descent as the rain.
Rav (Juve): As I mentioned earlier, without him, I don't think we would have won the 2011/12 title or the titles that followed - We built a system of play that relied so heavily on his vision and ingenuity. In that first season he repaid our faith and then some. He didn't have the pace or physicality of Pogba or Vidal, but he was always 2 steps ahead of every other player on the pitch, even his teammates. The first title under Conte will be one of the most important in the clubs history and one of my all time favourites, and Andrea will be remembered as the architect of it, on the pitch. It's difficult for me to put into words what his legacy is at Juventus, so I'll use the words of Roby Baggio instead, who said this about the maestro:
"He always had the great gift of being able to visualise and anticipate plays before everyone else. His vision, what he can do with the ball, and what he's able to create, make him a true superstar. Andrea has something which you don’t see very often."
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