Pirlo is MLS' ultimate luxury player, but is he helping or hurting NYCFC?
The term luxury player is one that contains the hint of a compliment, but really is a criticism. It's typically used to describe a player who is effective -- perhaps even brilliant -- in attack, but whose defensive deficiencies make him more of a liability. The margins by which a player helps or hinders his side are thin.
It seems appropriate, then, that perhaps Major League Soccer's ultimate luxury player is New York City FC midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Without question, the Italian can still dazzle the eye when he has the ball at his feet, and his ability to dictate a game's tempo remains impressive. But at this stage of his career his mobility is limited, leading to the perception that he's a defensive liability.
The question for NYCFC is whether Pirlo is a luxury the team can afford, and not just because he earned $5.91 million in guaranteed compensation last year. It's a query that a fair number of players around the league are answering in the negative. During ESPN FC's annual MLS player survey, when asked to name the most overrated player in the league, Pirlo ranked fourth behind Mix Diskerud, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya. One Western Conference player flat out said: "I would never have [Pirlo] on my team. He can't move."
But those who have seen Pirlo up close have a different perspective. Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Andrew Jacobson spent parts of two seasons playing alongside Pirlo in the NYCFC midfield. Jacobson was given the task that Alexander Ring has now, that of doing the hard running and tackling in midfield so Pirlo can focus on starting the attack. For Jacobson, Pirlo was a player who lived up to the hype.
"I've never seen anybody with the intelligence in the game that Pirlo has, and I know he has that reputation. He's already considered a genius, but it's a lot more than I ever expected," Jacobson said. "He doesn't change speeds a lot, but he's always moving. You can't really mark him out of the game because he's so smart on where to go. And the passes he finds, you don't even realize that he's even seen it."
Some of the differing opinions about Pirlo are down to his position on the field and how he plays it. He is likely the only pure, deep-lying playmaker in MLS. Elsewhere, the spot in front of the back line is usually taken up by multifaceted midfielders like the Seattle Sounders' Osvaldo Alonso, who excels at breaking up attacks. Expectations for a World Cup winner like Pirlo are exceedingly high as well, so a play or performance in which he comes up second best gets more scrutiny.
Jacobson added that Pirlo has adapted to the reality that he is playing with players who are not as technically proficient as those that the former Italy international played alongside in Serie A. But there are occasions where Pirlo's approach can backfire.
A case in point is the game against the San Jose Earthquakes back on April 1, when an ill-advised back pass by Pirlo to goalkeeper Sean Johnson set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to a goal by Quakes forward Marco Urena. There have also been moments when Pirlo has seemed surprised to find himself getting pressured in his own half. But in Jacobson's experience, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
"Pirlo makes his team better because he takes risks in places where most players aren't willing to take risks," Jacobson said. "I think that brings a lot of confidence to the team. He doesn't play it safe, which is why he's been so successful. For the risks he takes, he doesn't really get caught very often for what he's able to do in the defensive third with the ball."
As for Pirlo's defensive shortcomings, Jacobson felt that there weren't that many occasions when the two of them got exposed. The reason for that is that Pirlo is adept at shepherding more athletic opponents into places where help is nearby. Jacobson added that his teammate's more cerebral approach helped his game evolve.
"Pirlo helped me a lot in understanding that I didn't have to press all over the field and run as much as you can. I learned you can run a lot less and think a lot more and get more done," he added. "You can be patient and save your energy, and when you can get close, that's when you go win the ball. But to run a 15- to 20-yard sprint to somebody who has the ball and think you're going to take it off them, you're just wasting your energy. I think that helped me a lot."
That said, no matter how smart a player is or how clever a team's tactical scheme might be, there is simply no hiding on a soccer field, and at some point a player's weaknesses will be exposed. When that player is a legend like Pirlo, the sight can be jarring. That was the case in last weekend's 2-1 defeat to D.C. United, when a DCU counterattack saw Pirlo lose an individual battle with Luciano Acosta near the center circle. Acosta then ran away from Pirlo in the open field, with the play leading to Acosta's eventual winner.
Manager Patrick Vieira seems well aware of the fine margins that Pirlo's presence on the field creates. It was perhaps telling that in each of the past two games, with New York needing a goal to either get the win (against San Jose) or climb back into the match (against D.C. United), he opted to bring Pirlo off in order to provide a more physically robust attacking presence. Vieira is also in the process of shifting his team's formation into a 3-4-3, though at times last weekend it looked like some of the NYCFC players weren't entirely comfortable with the approach.
For now, Vieira looks set to continue with that approach, and Pirlo, too. The coming months will then reveal if NYCFC's taste for luxury translates into victories.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.