Wednesday’s match versus Real Salt Lake was notable for several reasons. It was the second of three matches in an eight-day span, and that being the case it was one in which Patrick Vieira elected to make significant changes to his XI. But another reason it was notable was the return of Andrea Pirlo to the starting lineup.
Once a fixture in the first team, as is expected of a superstar Designated Player, Pirlo has slowly become an odd man out, finding himself on the bench for two straight matches as he watched Yangel Herrera make play after play again and again, as if after Vieira’s own heart. Then, in the club’s May 14th draw versus FC Dallas, things got even more eye-opening as Pirlo was not even among the 18 players Vieira selected for the match.
Conventional wisdom tells us this was to have him stay back and instead have him fly directly to Salt Lake City, where Vieira would intend to play him. RSL was a team doing a bit of soul searching, and had not really shown a lot of bite in the midfield this season, seemingly making them an ideal matchup to get Pirlo back into the Starting XI. The result was a 2-1 loss to Mike Petke’s side, as the team constantly saw itself forced into emergency defending and not offering enough aggression in the attack.
Now, it must be said, Pirlo was not the reason the team lost. Several other changes to the lineup, including inserting players like Frederic Brillant and R.J. Allen into the back line, as well as adding players like Miguel Camargo into the front 3, were all moves that Vieira later acknowledged were bad decisions on his part. This was yet another game, however, in which Pirlo could not orchestrate his legendary Regista influence on the pitch-- an unfortunate recurring theme for him and the club this season. In 8 matches, all starts, Pirlo has still yet to record a goal or an assist in the 2017 campaign. And while he has seen reduced minutes this season, he still on the season has averaged 77 minutes per match, still more than enough time to impact a match.
It’s clear that Pirlo is in a steep decline in his career at this point, although it could be argued he has never really lived up to his DP status during his tenure with New York City FC: since 2015, Pirlo has played in 53 matches (he started in all of them except for his July 26th debut) for a total of 4460 minutes played. Over that span of time, Pirlo has recorded 1 goal and 16 assists according to mlssoccer.com. That’s right folks...1 goal. And while the 16 assists might sound great, let’s compare him to some of the other team leaders not named David Villa since the outset of the inaugural 2015 season:
NYCFC Midfield Performance Since 2015
|Player||Games Played||Started||Mintues Played||Goals||Assists||Goals + Assists|
|Player||Games Played||Started||Mintues Played||Goals||Assists||Goals + Assists|
I chose to sort of make up the G+A (Goals plus Assists) stat for this chart. While it is a bit crude, I wanted to create a column for this made-up stat to try and encapsulate Pirlo’s overall offensive contributions to the club. And it was a convenient way to compare his overall contributions with, say a Frank Lampard, who offered a different kind of offensive contribution, namely goals. And a lot of them. Then, you juxtapose it to a player like Tommy McNamara, who has contributed in both goals and assists to a number that surpasses Pirlo’s contributions. Even a player like Khiry Shelton, who many (myself included) have more or less been disappointed with and keep waiting for him to become that breakout player we want him to be, is still not far off Pirlo’s mark in considerably fewer games and minutes played. And that is the theme when you look all throughout this small chart: Pirlo has played considerably more games and minutes than all of the players listed, with close to equal or lesser results.
While goal scoring has never truly been a big staple of Pirlo’s game over his career, it still needs to be mentioned how little he’s done in that department when you remember that Pirlo has handled nearly all of the free kick duties since he has joined the club, relieving David Villa from that responsibilty despite the Spaniard remaining consistently lethal on free kicks (further evidenced by Tommy McNamara’s goal on Sunday in Dallas). And remember, this is Andrea Pirlo, the guy who could do stuff like this:
*cue YouTube Highlight Sizzle Reel*
Wherever that Pirlo is, he’s long-gone and not looking to pop up in the Bronx anytime soon. Yes, Pirlo is still a great passer. He still sees the pitch in a way most could never dream of and can still drop a sparkling diagonal right on David Villa’s big toe. But the truth is that those moments of genius are becoming fewer and farther between as his time with NYCFC continues. And without the end product, his ability to pass and help maintain possession in Vieira’s system is far outweighed by the elephant in the room we haven’t even yet addressed: Andrea Pirlo’s defense.
While you’re never as bad as your worst play, this video embodies what it is like to watch Pirlo in the NYCFC shirt.
I will say this-- he has had moments where you could see he is actually trying to play defense. And I commend him for those moments. But the fact remains, and it’s a fact Vieira has had to accept and deal with this year, that teams in MLS are reliably poised to expose Pirlo on the defensive side of the ball.
In a league known for its speed and athleticism, his limitations in those areas are an unavoidable problem in Vieira’s midfield. It’s at the point now where teams are almost salivating at that thought of being able to run Pirlo off the ball or create a turnover in our defensive third by focusing their pressure in Pirlo’s direction. And once those turnovers happen, Pirlo offers next to no protection to the backline. Vieira knows this, which is why he’s made highly-publicized adjustments as the season marches on. He’s opted for players like Herrera and McNamara to take Pirlo’s spot in the lineup to mitigate the opposition’s strategy with more consistency.
Another wrinkle in the Pirlo saga is that it is clear he and the club’s new signing, fellow Designated Player Maxi Moralez, do not function together stylistically. Pirlo, as the maestro, works best as a deep-lying playmaker, pulling the strings from the midfield depths looking for the precise pass to unlock a defense. Moralez, however, is also a string-puller, albeit in a much different way. Moralez likes to roam anywhere from deep in midfield to right under the center forward where he can find space and provide deft through-balls for his teammates to put away.
It’s become clear over the first few months of the season that we cannot get the best out of Moralez while Pirlo is on the pitch. You can only have one conductor at a time, and the results bear this out. When Vieira made the switch to Yangel Herrera in the starting lineup, we saw a much different Moralez, one who could roam the entire field and really trouble the opposing defense with his distribution. And with Pirlo off the pitch, there was no link weak link in the midfield that Maxi and Alexander Ring had to cover for.
With players like Herrera and McNamara fighting and earning Vieira’s admiration and desire to give them more minutes — namely Pirlo’s minutes — the writing seems to be on the wall for this to be his last season with the club, perhaps his last season playing soccer entirely. While Villa was inking a new deal with NYCFC, Pirlo was curiously non-committal as to what he would do next. All winter we heard rumors about this perhaps being Pirlo’s final season, and there doesn’t seem to be anything to lead us to think otherwise at this juncture.
It’s unfortunate, really. While he is in his own rights a legend who made his stamp in the annals of soccer’s rich history in Italy, he has created a much different impression to his fanbase here in New York and in MLS. What was once an endearing “Most Interesting Man in the World” meme-quality persona has transformed amongst fans in the Bronx to now having fans question his commitment on and off the pitch.
Last season, an ESPN FC article quoted Pirlo as saying the following:
"It's a very hard league to play in. It's very physical, there's a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play," Pirlo told Reuters at a MLS promotional event. "What I'm talking about is actually a system or culture. I don't mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled."
Quoted as saying you have to run too much in MLS is not going to be the best way to endear yourself to the fans. Then this year, ESPN FC got Pirlo again with comments regarding Daniele De Rossi.
"I would advise him to change scenery," Pirlo told Sportitalia. "He's young and he can still play in one of Europe's leagues, while at the same time it is still early for him to come to America. He can still play at the highest levels."
De Rossi turns 34 this July. Yet, Pirlo says that he is still young and it’s too early for him to come to America. David Villa, currently 35 years old, began his first season in MLS at the age of 33 and has been a revelation, winning the MVP in 2016 and pretty much being the best player not named Sebastian Giovinco in MLS since he entered the league. To further contrast the two DPs, Villa on the other hand has openly said how he wants players from Spain, namely the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, to come play not only for MLS but specifically for New York City FC.
Pirlo is signed for the remainder of the 2017 campaign, but one has to wonder if he’ll make his exit in this summer’s transfer window. While Pirlo is entitled to play out his contract, perhaps he will accept that NYCFC doesn’t have the role for him it once did and opt to retire in the summer, opening up opportunities for him to join clubs in Italy in some form of coaching capacity before the 2017-18 Serie A season starts. This is all conjecture, but if he did so it would be a huge boon for this club, affording them a coveted DP slot they could use on another (preferably younger) star who properly fits Patrick Vieira’s system.
But, as it stands, the Pirlo Era is coming to an end in the Bronx. And unfortunately, it must be said:
Andrea Pirlo, we’re not impressed