As the modern game becomes more and more about power and pace, there are a couple of players who stand out as the greatest exponents of technical play in 21st century football
Not since March 2008 in an international friendly in Elche have they stepped onto the same field, but on Sunday evening one of those rare treats will be enjoyed by Europe’s football fans as two colossi of the modern game face off on the greatest stage. In terms of technical ability, there will be no greater show during Euro 2012 than Spain’s Group C clash with Italy thanks simply to the presence of Xavi and Andrea Pirlo.
In an era in which more and more leagues look to follow the trend of the fast and furious Premier League, the instinct to put one’s foot on the ball and assess all options can seem almost primeval at times. But the Barcelona midfielder and his Juventus counterpart remain the greatest exponents of passing football that the world has to offer, and their respective teams have reaped the rewards.
When Xavi has been at his metronomic best, Barca have been near-unstoppable. When people say he has won 22 trophies in his career, including a World Cup and European Championship, they could almost be listing personal achievements. It is damned difficult not to win games when he is at his pomp.
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He has never changed since being taught at La Masia to nurture the ball, guide it, treat it right, and never take it for granted. His ability to keep a picture of the entire pitch in his head no matter what is going on around him is phenomenal, almost reaching the extent that he knows what team-mates and opponents alike are going to do before they know it themselves. Such a supreme footballing brain has so rarely been seen before. Chess once had Garry Kasparov, but football is lucky ... Xavi is still playing.
Some have said of the likes of Xavi and Lionel Messi that it is easier to play in a team full of so many stars. While that sentiment may hold some truth, what cannot be debated is the fact that the Spaniard has regularly stood out in the world’s best club and international sides over the past half-decade. Barcelona and Spain have won everything. And Xavi has won much of it for them, with few of those 22 triumphs having come without his stamp all over them.
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It is never as simple, of course, as saying that one player won a trophy single-handedly, but many have come close to claiming exactly that of Andrea Pirlo over the past few months. One thing that is for certain is that Juventus would not have won the Scudetto had the midfielder not left AC Milan for Vinovo last summer.
His impact has been sensational, transforming a side looking ill at ease defensively and lacking in direction on the ball into one of the most complete outfits seen anywhere in the world over the past season. His ability to dictate a game has made Juve a winning club once more, and Pirlo himself has returned to the kind of form which had many pointing to him as one of football’s best ever passing midfielders
When a team is based around Pirlo, trophies invariably follow. Just ask Juve, or Milan. He was also the heartbeat of the Italy side which shocked the world in 2006. There is no coincidence that teams with Pirlo in them have great defensive records. When he’s around, opponents automatically drop deeper, knowing any space given up is likely to be exploited. Hell, he even seems to find space when there is none. It goes without saying that when a team plays deeper, they are less able to ask questions themselves. That’s just part of the Pirlo effect.
The technical ability that both players exude dispels the myth that technical football is a luxury to be ignored – a starry-eyed notion that doesn’t belong in the real world. When Xavi or Pirlo is on the field, a game is always, but always, worth watching. Their passing stats alone leave the rest of football embarrassed.
But what makes them so good? What attributes are combined to form modern football’s two best footballers? Below we break down their abilities, giving them a rating out of five stars for each area.
|MENTAL ATTRIBUTES (Marks out of 5)
Mentally, there is little to separate the two. Neither is known for his aggression, but they both hit the heights pretty much everywhere else. Xavi perhaps just nips ahead on workrate, with Barcelona in particular demanding an energetic midfield which regenerates the ball across the board. Pirlo, on the other hand, has had the benefit of partners such as Gennaro Gattuso and Arturo Vidal alongside him to help share this responsibility.
|TECHNICAL ATTRIBUTES (Marks out of 5)
Rarely will you see such numbers held by two players in the modern game when judging technical brilliance. In fact, they are virtually neck and neck in this department, both scoring full marks for creativity, passing and technique, with Pirlo also getting a full-house in terms of his dribbling ability. Apart from the weaker foot, for which both are rated three stars, the only other attribute in which either scores below four is the set-pieces and penalty taking of Xavi.
| PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES (Marks out of 5)
|84 / 100||OVERALL||83 / 100|
Pirlo was the best player in Serie A this term, and has been in the best form since the 2006 World Cup. Xavi, on the other hand, tired towards the end of the campaign despite his best ever scoring season for Barca. Despite this, the Catalan beats the Italian physically due to his energetic pressing game, whereas Pirlo often chooses to conserve his energy.
Our ratings suggest that Xavi just about edges out Pirlo, but will that be enough to see Spain past Italy? One thing you can guarantee is a barnstorming clash between two true footballing greats. We may see them on the same pitch again before you know it, with a potential knockout clash still a possibility in Euro 2012. And with Juventus back in the Champions League, it could happen at club level next season too. But why take the chance? This one is unmissable.