Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Italy, 4-time World Cup champions (1934, 1938, 1982, and most recently in 2006), who have drawn a tough group that includes Uruguay, England, and Costa Rica. Italy play their first match against England on June 14th.
There are only two players remaining in the Italian squad from their 2006 World-Cup winning team. One is goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who at 36 years of age is still considered one of the best keepers in the world. The other is central midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Both of these players have been key contributors to the successes of the Italian National team for the past 15 years, but Pirlo in particular is poised to have a big impact on Italy’s chances in this year’s tournament. At 34 years of age, Pirlo is still widely considered one of the world’s best holding midfielders, and his play with both Italy and club team Juventus, who captured their record 30th Italian Serie A championship this year, confirms this claim.
Among Pirlo’s talents is one key ability that allows him to give his team an edge in every match: the ability to play a “penetrating” pass that splits two of the opponent’s defenders during open play. Recent research into predictors of success in the World Cup by Saito and Yoshimura (2011) has identified that, of all goals scored during open play, over 50 percent of them occur after a penetrating pass has been played to a forward player. Furthermore, other goals (for example, goals scored from crosses) and also other scoring opportunities (shots on target, or plays that lead to set pieces like free kicks and corner kicks) comprise a passing sequence that contains a penetrating pass over 80 percent of the time.
A player like Pirlo, who has the unique ability to see the gaps in opposing defenses and play accurate passes through them to his teammates, is thus an extremely valuable asset, creating several scoring opportunities for his team each game. Add to this the fact that Pirlo is also exceptional at scoring from free kicks (many of which may arise from a forward player receiving a penetrating pass from him and then being fouled by the opponent) and he becomes even more valuable to his team (and even more dangerous to his opponents). The video shown here contains a stunning highlight reel of Pirlo’s greatest plays, including several penetrating passes, as well as goals from free kicks and open play. Can he repeat these types of performances and help the Italians win a 5th World Cup title? We will have to wait and see what happens in 2 months’ time.
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