By Carlo Garganese
The pressure of being labelled the "new Andrea Pirlo" would be enough to destroy many careers before they have even begun. Not Marco Verratti, though, who has exceeded all expectations since his much-publicised summer transfer from Pescara to Paris Saint-Germain.
The 19-year-old is already a fan favourite at the Parc des Princes, locals chanting his name and cheering his every pass. While seven-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic has unsurprisingly established himself as Ligue 1's best attacker, Verratti has turned just as many heads in midfield.
"Verratti is not good ... he is great," hailed Ibrahimovic recently.
"Italy can relax for the next World Cup, as they already have an alternative to Pirlo in midfield and his name is Marco Verratti," lauded PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti, who at AC Milan ingeniously converted Pirlo from a trequartista into the regista role he has since mastered.
After bursting onto the scene with Zdenek Zeman's promotion-winning Pescara in Italy's Serie B last season, laying on the ammunition for star forwards Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, Verratti soon became a very wanted man. Juventus seemed destined to sign him, first in January and then in July, but foolishly hesitated over the transfer fee. This opened the door for PSG to snare the teenager for what now seems a bargain price of €12 million.
Like his "idol" Pirlo, Verratti sits deep in a central midfield three. His role as regista is to dictate the play, link the midfield to the attack, and create chances. There are many similarities between the duo. Always available, with a gift for locating space and making time for himself, Verratti is effortlessly calm and collected when in possession. He sees and 'feels' passes, recognises patterns and exploits spaces that most players don't even know exist. And all with unerring accuracy – this season Verratti has a pass success rate of over 91 per cent, as well as three assists.
Touch of a master | Pirlo has been described by Verratti as his "idol"
In truth, Verratti's presence and style of play is perhaps more comparable to Barcelona playmaker Xavi. At just 5ft 5in, he is even smaller than the Catalan, and the majority of his passes are short-ranged – recycling possession, and building attacks with triangles, give and goes, and one-twos. One would be forgiven for thinking that Verratti was trained at La Masia, although that isn't to say he can't execute longer Pirlo-style passes, as his delightful chipped assist for Javier Pastore's goal against Toulouse proves.
What seems certain, however, is that Verratti has already reached a higher level than Pirlo did at the same age. Like the PSG starlet, Pirlo was a teen prodigy – debuting in Serie A at the age of 16 for Brescia, before signing for Inter as a 19-year-old. Although he attained more years of top level experience as a teenager, and went on to score an impressive 15 goals in 37 games for a Euro-conquering Italy Under-21 side, it wasn’t until he turned 23 in his second year at AC Milan in 2002 that Pirlo fulfilled his early promise, broke into the Italy seniors and truly made his mark on the Champions League.
A month short of his twentieth birthday, Italy squad regular Verratti has been capped by the Azzurri, is the midfield leader of European football's newest superpower, and earned a place in Goal.com's Champions League Team of Matchday One following his flawless debut in the competition – a 4-1 thrashing of Dynamo Kiev.
|SHINING STAR | Verratti's 2012-13 Player Ratings
|PSG 2-2 Lorient||11/08/12|
|England 2-1 Italy||15/08/12|
|Ajaccio 0-0 PSG||19/08/12|
|PSG 0-0 Bordeaux||26/08/12|
|Lille 1-2 PSG||02/09/12|
|PSG 2-0 Toulouse||14/09/12|
|PSG 4-1 D.Kiev||18/09/12|
|Bastia 0-4 PSG||22/09/12|
|PSG 2-0 Sochaux||29/09/12|
The big question now is whether Verratti can build on this stunning start and go on to enjoy a legendary career like Pirlo.
The player himself is keeping his feet on the ground. "The comparisons with Pirlo do me a lot of good as he is one of the best players in the world," he told L'Equipe. "I am still far from his level. I will have to work very hard if I am to become as good a player as him and achieve the same success."
Verratti is certainly not without his weaknesses. The defensive phase of his game requires a lot of attention, and PSG have been troubled during transitions due to the starlet's failure to close down opponents and win tackles. Against stronger opposition than Ligue 1 has to offer, Verratti could be punished.
He is also yet to be tested in matches where PSG don't dominate possession and territory, although this could be spun into a positive. Such is his ability to dictate proceedings, he often doesn't need to defend. Pirlo has never convinced defensively – indeed he can be described as weak, slow and timid in the tackle – but with aggressive midfielders protecting him, it is of little consequence. Verratti has formed an outstanding understanding with the combative, lung-busting Blaise Matuidi, who plays the Arturo Vidal role for PSG.
Verratti undoubtedly possesses the talent, the team-mates and the trainer to make it right to the top of the European game. Ancelotti already once developed Pirlo into the best centre midfielder in the world ... Verratti could not wish for a more suitable coach to take him to a similar level.
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