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Football is a game that is constantly evolving in terms of tactics and strategies. In its modern version, a great emphasis is placed on obtaining full command of the midfield. The spotlight is always on the goal scorers, but the battle is won in the trenches of midfield. So it is natural that we find the most influential players of today’s game right in the middle of the park. Two that have stood out exceptionally in the last decade or so are Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo. The two share a lot of similarities, but also show a lot of differences.
In today’s football both pundits and fans give scores of individual awards, recognitions and praise to certain players. But in the end of the day, football is team sport and the most important aspect of an individual player is the success, measured in trophies, he brings to the teams he plays for. In the silverware department, Xabi Alonso and Pirlo are pretty evenly matched. Simply put, both have won everything that really matters.
They guided their national teams to victory in the last two World Championships. Both of them have won the European Champions League with legendary clubs, Alonso for Liverpool and Pirlo for Milan in 2003 and 2007. Strikingly, they faced each other in the final on two of the three occasions. First Alonso coming on top in 2005 where he led Liverpool to a comeback from a 3 goal deficit (where he netted one of the goals and then Pirlo missed one of the penalties), and then Pirlo got his revenge two years later, winning 2-1.
In terms of international competitions, Alonso probably holds the edge as his World Cup title is sandwiched by two European triumphs. On both occasions he again faced off with Pirlo, first progressing on penalties in the quarter finals of 2008 and the comfortably winning 4-0 in the final last year. Although Pirlo is slightly edged in terms of international trophies and head-to-head encounters, he has won more national titles, taking the Serie A two times with Milan and last year with Juventus. Despite his other success, Alonso has only been a club champion once, finally taking La Liga with Real Madrid last season.
In terms of style of play, the two maestros are also very close peers. They are deep-lying midfielders, who are both the first line of defence and the first point of a new attack on the team. It is the most demanding position in modern football, as it requires both exceptional defensive abilities and strong offensive skills, something not many players can combine. Alonso and Pirlo both do, although maybe in a slightly different way. The Spaniard is the more gritty and dynamic player, while the Maestro is the better technician and passer. In any event, they find a way to get the job done and that’s how their teams have managed to build a lot of success around them.
Naturally, given their playing positions, they are not prolific goal scorers, but manage to find the net when it matters. Xabi Alonso has 35 goals in 535 appearances in club football, and 15 in 106 on international duty with Spain. It is quite clear that is rate is much better for La Furia Roja. Pirlo has 60 goals in 595 games in club football and 11 in 95 for Italy. His club record is better because he played in more advanced roles early in his career, while is national team stat is very similar. Both guys are the go-to players for set pieces in the national teams, taking responsibility for spot kicks and most free kicks. While Pirlo does the same thing for his club, Alonso’s role in that regard is subdued with the amount of offensive talent in Real Madrid.
Like we said before, in football, most eyes are usually on the forwards who put the ball into the net. Especially these days, with sensations like Messi, Ronaldo and Van Persie popping a reamarkable amount of goals each week, it is natural that they get most of the fan and media attention. But there have always been prolific goal scorers. Success in football these days comes from the heart, and that often literally means from midfield. Xabi Alonso and Pirlo have excelled at the roles of both architects and builders in football by combining exceptional defensive acumen, skilful organizational and offensive skills, and all that combined with a big football brain. They have both become the foundation, around which their teams have build success. And unlike Messi, Ronaldo and Van Persie, they have been able to do it not only on club, but also on national team level.