Last time around we discussed the role of the Libero, a player who was made free from the chains of Catenaccio to roam the pitch both in defence and in attack, to close down his opponents and create for his teammates. However, there is another role in the Italian game with the same freedom in the defensive end of the pitch, and whose origins trace back to the birth of Italy as a power in the international game. Played by maestros and metronomes, it’s a role played by players whose impact in the game might not seem immediate, but whose influence is undeniable; artists of the pass and the dribble. We’re talking of the Regista.
The right man for the job
Football in Italy arrived (like always) by the hand of the British, when Turinese trader Edoardo Bosio returned to his motherland after a working trip to London. Many years later, another tradesman from Turin would bring another influence from the English game. Vittorio Pozzo was born on March 2nd, 1886, in a working family from the Piemontese capital. He loved the game, but quickly realized he wasn’t very good at it. He was, though, a good student, so he focused on an education in commerce.
That eventually took him to London, and then to Manchester, where his love for the game was rekindled. He became a Manchester United fan, and in particular of the game of the Red Devils’ centre-half, Charlie Roberts, a player who, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, started attacks with “sweeping long passes out to the wings”. Pozzo became friends with the United player, and such was his preferred style centre-half throughout his career.
However, by the time he became Italy’s commissario tecnico (manager, that is) for the second time in 1929, Herbert Chapman’s WM revolution was already in full swing, with centre-halves dropping into defence as the third man and the likes Charlie Roberts being replaced by players like Arsenal’s Herbie Roberts, a more physical, pragmatic presence in that spot, who would not create attacks but destroy them. Pozzo was disgusted; that was not the football he loved. Tactical revolutions, nonetheless, are not something one can willfully ignore. Chapman’s Arsenal and its success had proven the superiority of the third back when facing a traditional 2-3-5. Pozzo, then, went for a compromise: Argentine midfielder Luis Monti.
It may be hard to understand why a player that had been a World Cup finalist just four years early with his native Argentina was ready to play for Italy, but back in the day, it sure wasn’t that strange. Between 1860 and 1920 more than 2.2 million Italians immigrated to Argentina, and the trend would not stop until after the post-WWII era. Currently, it’s estimated that around 30 million Argentinians are of Italian descent, around 60% of the total population. Most importantly, the relationship between the diaspora and the homeland never truly died out, with huge parts of Argentine culture showing its Italian influence; as Debojyoti Chakraborty points out in his article for Goalden Times, “Argentines are Italians who happen to speak Spanish”.
One of the five oriundi (foreign-born of Italian descent) in that 1934 Italy side, Monti was, however, 33 at the time, and hardly in the form of his life. As Jonathan Wilson put in Inverting the Pyramid, he “was overweight and, even after a month of solitary training, was not quick”. He had, however, a particular skill set that was vital to make a success out of Pozzo’s tactics, which would come to be known as Metodo. What the Italian manager had come to realize was that while a third defender was necessary, it needn’t be an enforcer; it needn’t be one of either Charlie Roberts or Herbie Roberts, it could be a mix of both. In Monti, Pozzo found a player with the tenacity, ground coverage and defensive capabilities required of the WM’s centre-halves, and the passing and creativity that characterized the position in the days before Chapman’s innovation.
Whilst Monti’s job description would later come to be more exemplary of the Libero in the decades after WWII, his performance with the side that would go on to win the 1934 World Cup would cement in the Italian imaginary the role played by the defensive midfielder. If Monti’s legacy in Argentinian football is that of the first fierce cinco, the ideal ball-winning midfielder, with the Azurri he marks the starting point of a very different player, the Regista.
The right job for the man
When decided which of the many great Registas in Italian football history, part of me longed to go for the much less analyzed (and therefore less hyped) Demetrio Albertini, or even someone like Fernando Redondo. In the end, I decided that it would be a missed opportunity to go with anyone but Andrea Pirlo . Curiously, however, Luis Monti may have been the perfect player to give birth to the role of the Regista, but the man who would play it best in the modern age almost never did it.
Andrea Pirlo was born on May 19th, 1979, in Flero, a small village on the outskirts of Brescia. From a young age, he was passionate about the game. He played inside the house with a ball made of wrapped socks and in the street with his brothers and friends. In the tight corridors of the small town, his touch and control developed. It didn’t take too long until the biggest club in the city, Brescia Calcio, took notice.
Pirlo would debut for the Leonessa during the 1994/95 season, aged just 16, under Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu. It was a bittersweet season, however, as Brescia was already relegated, having won just two matches all season long. By the 1996/97 season, Pirlo was a first-team usual as the Biancoazzurri returned to the top tier. His talent was apparent, and it was his former mentor Lucescu who poached him for his latest project, at Inter Milan. He got to play with players like Ronaldo, Djorkaeff and his childhood hero Roberto Baggio, or rather, he got to see them from the bench.
Having played all his career in the Trequartista spot in attacking midfield, at Inter he competed for the position with authentic giants of the game. His playtime was rather limited, and neither an impressive loan spell at Reggiana nor captaining Italy to a European Under-21s title helped him break into the Nerazzurri‘s first team. Without any consistent minutes, he went out on loan again, this time back to his former side Brescia.
There he would meet again with an old teammate; Roberto Baggio had just gotten his iconic move to the Leonessa. For Pirlo, it wasn’t good news. Baggio had blocked his path to playtime in Milan, where he was one among many stars; in Brescia, not even a prodigal son narrative would get him minutes over Il Divino. However, manager Carlo Mazzone had different plans. Realizing his limited Brescia squad couldn’t do without Pirlo’s quality, he decided to move the young attacking midfielder into a withdrawn position, and play him as a Regista. It was a match made in heaven. He only played 10 games for the Biancoazzurri in that second spell, but it was enough to consolidate him as the next great Regista.
After that 2000/01 season, Pirlo moved to AC Milan for close to €17m. Years later, then Inter president Massimo Moratti would regret the decision: “The biggest regret I have had in my career as Inter president was selling Pirlo to Milan. It was my decision to give him away and this was clearly a big mistake”. It wouldn’t be the last time a bigwig at a Milan side would regret the decision of letting Pirlo go.
Another big star could’ve proven a big stumbling block for the newly branded Regista with the Rossoneri, with Fernando Redondo joining arriving from Madrid the previous summer. However, the Argentine struggled to maintain fitness, and AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti decided to stick with Pirlo at the base of his famed “Christmas Tree” formation. Ironically, it would be Redondo’s failure to sustain competitive fitness would push AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to create the “Milan Lab” a pioneering sports medicine centre. Part of the Rossoneri training facilities, they dedicated to preventing injuries, improving training methods and extending player’s careers, and Pirlo would greatly benefit from their work.
Andrea Pirlo would go on to be highly successful with AC Milan under Ancelotti. Together they won a Serie A title, two UEFA Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups, a FIFA Club World Cup, a Coppa Italia, and a Supercoppa Italiana, with Pirlo winning a second Serie A title with the Rossoneri under Max Allegri, before departing on a free transfer to Juventus. AC Milan’s Chief Executive Adriano Galliani would call that move “the worst mistake of my career” (I told you this would happen again), as Pirlo won four consecutive Serie A titles, two Supercoppa Italiana titles, and a Coppa Italia, before retiring with the MLS side New York City FC.
“When I look back now, I realise that I owe everything to Carlo Mazzone and Carlo Ancelotti”, Pirlo has said, “the two most important coaches that I’ve ever had”. It was under another manager, however, that he achieved his greatest triumph.
Italy weren’t favourites for the 2006 World Cup. Brazil had the best player in the world at the time, in Ronaldinho, and mixed pieces from their 2002 title-winning core with younger players like Robinho, Adriano and a much improved Kaká. Argentina where Olympic Champions and had been Copa América finalists. Germany as hosts were always favoured and the Netherlands were fresh off their Euro 2004 semifinals run and returned to the World Cup after eight years.
Marcello Lippi’s Italy, on the other hand, were just recovering from a self-inflicted group stage elimination on Euro 2004 that lead to Trappatoni getting sacked when the Calciopoli scandal burst into the scene. With less than a month for the beginning of the World Cup, players from most of the implicated teams had to come together to achieve a common goal. Amazingly, they went on and won it, putting their names among the Azurri‘s many greats. Pirlo, who’s often talked about how little he felt outside pressure, was key to it all.
Lippi went from a 4-1-2-1-2 early in the tournament to a deep 4-2-3-1 in the latter stages. We’re gonna focus on the second as the inner workings of the team with each formation weren’t all that different, and it was this later built upon by following coaches.
Italy played with a back four consisting of Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Materazzi and Grosso. It wasn’t an overly complicated or multifaceted defence. The fullbacks provided some extra width and Cannavaro in particular looked to anticipate opponents and clear the ball early, but nothing too fancy. If anything, it was a solid and reliable base from which the attack could operate cleanly.
In front of the defence, a known duo of Pirlo and Gattuso contributed in very different, but equally important ways. Gennaro Gattuso once famously said “When I see Andrea Pirlo play I ask myself if I can really be considered a footballer”, but his contribution to that Italian side was vital in allowing the maestro to express his talent. Rino would actively cover vast parts of the pitch, outmuscling and outsmarting ball carriers all across the defensive third. When the ball was regained, Pirlo would launch counter-attacks with long, elegant passes to the attackers or the wide men.
On the wings, Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi (yet another Argentine playing for Italy) provided width and dynamism, with the Romanista looking more like an attacking threat on the left, whilst Camoranesi played much more tucked inside and supported play all across the right side.
Up top, Francesco Totti played just behind Luca Toni as the total trequartista, moving throughout the attacking third, looking for free space to create or shot, dragging defenders off their zones and generally causing havoc for the opposition. Big man Toni grounded the attack, providing a focus for Pirlo’s long balls and crosses from the wings, as well as combining with the mobile Totti. He was no simple target man though, still very capable of taking on defenders and creating his own shots.
Pirlo’s role was to keep the playing going. He would often drop closer to the centrebacks to aid in the build-up phase, receiving and looking for long passes to any free man in the attack, or a long ball for Toni to challenge in the air.
Pirlo drops between Nesta and Cannavaro to aid the team’s build up from the back (1), from there, he can send a long ball or look for men in space out wide (2). Italy looks to play out after recovering the ball and Zaccardo instantly looks for Pirlo (3). He moves it quickly to De Rossi (4), but the Roma man is pressured so he returns to Pirlo (5) who spots Luca Toni dropping into space (6).
He would also work as a pressure release valve. Whenever one of his teammates was under a heavy press or risked losing the ball, they would always look up for Pirlo to receive and disarm the situation; Pirlo would never be too far away, himself seeming impervious to rash, intense pressing.
Gattuso recovers the ball and finds himself surrounded (1), so he instantly shifts it to Pirlo, who recycles possession with a one touch pass, nullifying Germany’s press (2). Years later, Pirlo sees himself pressed in the middle of the pitch by Özil (3). He losses his balance (4) but manages to regain it without conceding the ball; once on his feet, he sends a beautiful swooping pass (5) to Chiellini whos on acres of space on the left (6). Charlie Roberts and his friend Pozzo would have been proud.
Apart from build-up and possession recycling duties, Pirlo would also often contribute creativity closer to the edge of the box when his team was in control of the ball. Never breaking more than the casual stroll, he would join attacks late, staying around the area of the 18-yard box and looking to receive and shoot from range or release quick passes, either floating it above the defensive line or filter it through.
One of his most famous plays, Pirlo receives the ball off of a rebound from a corner and is instantly pressured (1). He keeps his composure without showing the Germans too much of the ball until he spots Fabio Grosso in space behind the defence (2), who scores the first aggregate time goal to send Italy to the World Cup final (3). During Euro 2012, Pirlo receives a backheel from De Rossi to find him in space (4), looks to shake off the defender (5) and shoots (6).
Defensively, much of his game was often about simply being in the right place at the right time and picking up the ball as if someone forgot it there. Very few times did he actually take on someone or make a tackle; he would simply take care of his zone, and wait for the opponent to make a mistake or some of his more dynamic teammates (often Gattuso or later De Rossi) to make the challenge.
The Regista on FM21
Replicating a talent like Pirlo was always gonna be a tough ask. Such a generational talent, such an iconic one, it’d be like mimicking one of the renaissance painters. However, if this century’s press-and-possess tactical developments have left us with something, it’s a fair collection of magnificent passers in midfield. People like Kevin De Bruyne, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcántara, Frenkie de Jong or Marco Verratti, whilst certainly not perfect Pirlo replicas, could certainly do a passable imitation. Problem is… here we don’t test tactics with top teams, so all of them were disqualified.
So, what type of player do you look for when you want a Regista? We need a player with wonderful control of the ball, so high First Touch, Technique and Dribbling. We also want him to have an eye for a killer pass and the technique to pull it off, so we add high attributes in Passing, Vision, Decisions, Flair and Anticipation. Finally, we require him to have the physical and mental qualities to shift and twist without losing control that had made Pirlo so press-resistant, so we’ll prioritize high Composure, Concentration, Agility and Balance as well. Useful extras would be Teamwork, Work Rate and Positioning (although the last two are a little less Pirlo-like) and Player Traits like “Dictates Tempo”, “Plays One-Twos” and “Tries Killer Balls Often”. When all was said and done, I had several candidates (got a few laughs out of having an Argentinian 2nd Tier player pass the filter), but one caught my eye especially.
David Silva, fresh of his move returning to the Spanish top tier after ten years in England, had all the qualities of a magnificent Regista. All but one, he couldn’t play the actual position. He was an Attacking Midfielder all his career, and despite his age, he’s still being deployed behind the striker for Real Sociedad. However, much like Pirlo was moved to a Regista spot by Mazzone and Monti was deployed as his centre-half by Pozzo, I felt Silva would adequately adapt to a new position where his magic wand of a foot would have the time and space to orchestrate without having to avoid the lunging tackles of the defenders.
With the Regista ready, it was time to see how to replicate Lippi’s 2006 tactics. This was my setup:
As you can see, a fairly standard back four, followed by the Regista/BMW-D duo to mimic Pirlo and Gattuso’s partnership. Ahead, a WM-S with instructions to Sit Narrower, Hold Position and Cross from Deep looked to replicate Camoranesi’s role on the right, whilst on the left a Winger on Support did a good job with Perrotta’s more attacking outlook. Up top, the AMC and the STC positions are at an angle to favour each other’s movements. Totti’s role was a by-the-books Treq, whilst Toni’s was harder for me to pin; in the end, I decided on a CF-A to lead the line but also provide support.
No Silva, no party
We had the player, we had the setup, but how did it work? I must say I was rather anxious about it. I worried at how much Silva’s lack of Positional Ability at the DM would hamper his performance, and despite being a better overall side than most of my “test squads”, Sociedad didn’t quite match the Lippi tactics. Despite that, Silva the Regista was a success from the get-go. From day one he was not only doing a fairly impressive Pirlo impersonation but helping his team with it.
Silva provided long passes for players in space, constantly opening up play and relieving pressed teammates offering a quick outlet. He would swiftly change the direction of play, forcing the defence to pivot and adjust, creating space on the wings and in the half-spaces.
He was also quite more adept at defending than Pirlo, but through much the same methods. He would often be at the right time to make a quick interception or simply pick up a lost pass and look to launch a counter from that. His partnership with Asier Illaramendi worked fairly well, with the former Real Madrid man covering for the Regista often. The only issue appeared when the right full-back pushed high due to his high mentality, which sometimes forced Illaramendi to cover that gap, leaving the midfield a bit empty, though it’s something that can be ironed out fairly easily.
Where Silva did deviate a bit from Pirlo’s game was in his touches around the box. He had no doubt the same quality and precision, but I think he had quite a lot more touches around the 18-yard box than Pirlo usually did. This points out to me that my Lippi-inspired cautious style probably hurt a bit Silva’s performance, limiting the amount of damage he could create.
Dictate the Game’s CrusaderTsar did point out to me on my original draft for the tactic that a limited mentality (it was Cautious back then) would hurt the Regista, and whilst I did move it up, the overall risk aversion of the whole set up meant there were fewer chances for Silva’s passing to punish the opposition and truly shine.
The Regista remains to me the quintessential Italian role. Germany has had its fair bit of magnificent Liberos, and you can lose track of how many brilliant Trequartistas have Argentina and Brazil produced (even if we call them “Enganche” or “Ponta de Lança”). However, with the Regista, and with Pirlo in particular, you feel like they’ve come to embody the brilliance of Italia football; the nonchalant, calm and composed strike of the ball, the stylish way in which the simplest actions become an art… there have been others, but none quite as good. At least on FM we can try and aim for the stars.