By: timbersfan , 12:20 AM GMT on September 21, 2012
This week, Roberto Di Matteo faces his most difficult tactical dilemma since winning the Champions League this past May: how can he prevent Andrea Pirlo from dominating when Juventus travels to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening?
Pirlo has played in England many times, but this is probably the first time that the Juventus midfielder has been pinpointed as the opposition's key man. His performance against England at Euro 2012 has finally given him the credit he deserves within Britain -- until then, he was shaping up to be another modern-era legend that this country has struggled to appreciate.
It's a particular phenomenon when it comes to Serie A players -- Francesco Totti has never received due acclaim for his Roma displays because he rarely played well against English opposition. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another; even after scoring twice against Arsenal in 2010, it was back to the old line when he played poorly against Tottenham the next season -- why doesn't he do it against English clubs?
Even Lionel Messi received this criticism until he headed in the crucial second goal against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final.
It's a strange, rather arrogant insistence that a player is only great once he's done it against one of our sides, and such an approach is best ignored. But for anyone who has witnessed the genius of Totti or Ibrahimovic over the years, it's incredibly frustrating for such players to be belittled with such a flimsy argument.
Until as recently as June, Pirlo was another example. A consistent performer with Milan for 10 seasons and a regular in the knockout stages of the Champions League, his steady, unfussy style never grabbed the headlines. Instead, Kaka was the Milan player who demolished English clubs -- particularly in the first half of the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool and the 5-3 aggregate win over Manchester United in 2007.
Pirlo's last appearance in England, by contrast, was a disappointment. He played the deepest-lying midfield position in a 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford in 2010, pressed and harried out of the game by Park Ji-Sung, who was used by Sir Alex Ferguson in an advanced midfield role. Even now, it's not uncommon to hear Park’s name mentioned shortly after Pirlo's -- "He's a good player, but remember when Park did a job on him that time?"
Maybe the perception that Pirlo had declined was England's problem in Kiev. Lining up at the base of an Italian diamond, Pirlo was utterly magnificent, spreading the play calmly to the full backs but also hitting long, straight balls over the England defence for Mario Balotelli to run onto. England's utter failure to deal with him was chiefly the fault of Wayne Rooney, lazily dropping back from his second striker position and largely ignoring instructions from Roy Hodgson (and shouts from goalkeeper Joe Hart) to mark Pirlo. Surely a player widely praised in England over the past decade -- a Xavi Hernandez, Zinedine Zidane or Andres Iniesta -- wouldn't have been allowed such room.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Pirlo plays so much deeper than those three. His positioning means he is up against creative players who are reluctant to help defend, and it's interesting that the best two marking jobs on him have been performed by natural wide midfielders -- Park in 2010, and Milan's Urby Emanuelson last season.
How Chelsea deals with him will be fascinating. Pirlo's main quality is his ability to set the tempo of the game, yet he can struggle when the opposition makes the game too frantic for his tastes. It's not necessarily being pressed that he has problems with -- Spain did that in the opening game of Euro 2012, yet Pirlo was still the most impressive midfielder on display -- but against a single, hard-working midfielder told to stick tight, he can encounter difficulties.
So what is Di Matteo's strategy? There are broadly four possibilities -- first, to sit deep and allow him space, instead trying to minimize space in the final third. Second, to create a high-tempo match as a whole, denying Pirlo his preferred environment. Third, to ask an attacker to drop onto Pirlo when out of possession. Fourth, to play a more defensive, hard-working player in an advanced, man-marking role.
GettyImages / Olly Greenwood/Getty Images
Ramires is one of the players who could be tasked with the job of marking Pirlo.
The first option is unlikely -- it's exactly what Di Matteo would have done last season when Chelsea won the Champions League with defensive-minded displays, but now he's building a more offensive, positive side. The fourth prompts the question about which player Chelsea would use there -- Raul Meireles would have been a natural, Michael Essien another option. With those midfielders sold in the summer, it's probably Ramires who represents the best solution, though Di Matteo prefers him on the right side of midfield.
With those strategies dismissed, we’ll probably see a combination of approaches two and three; Chelsea will attempt to create a high-tempo match and Di Matteo will tell his central attacking midfielder -- possibly Juan Mata, maybe Eden Hazard -- to pick up Pirlo when Chelsea loses possession. Mata is intelligent tactically and Hazard doesn't mind chasing back -- but Pirlo finds space cleverly and won't mind pulling his opponent into an area they’re uncomfortable in.
It’s not quite as simple as "stop Pirlo, stop Juventus" -- Antonio Conte's side have made some clever additions in the summer and possess a range of midfield weapons. But few other players in this season's Champions League have the ability to dictate a top-level match, and Di Matteo must prevent Pirlo being Juventus' key player.