The through ball: a pass that gets to an attacker who is behind the defenders and in open space.
The through ball is about surprise. It’s a shiv, not a machete. It tells the defense: your guard is down, but it’s too late now. You’re already bleeding.
The players who make these passes see the holes before others do. They find them between defenders. While others would dribble through these gaps, the Shivs pass. They play the ball at the exact right trajectory, at the right speed. The angle is usually an odd one, or the ball has to curl, otherwise the gap wouldn’t be there. It would be covered by a defender.
These players are rolling out quarterbacks, and they’re looking to move the ball down the field.
One of the world’s best at slipping in the shiv is the Italian man, Andrea Pirlo. Dark and bearded, his long hair flops around his neck when he runs. He’s debonair. With a stone-cut face, he's more philosopher than mean. He’s played for AC Milan, for Juventus, and has won nearly every major tournament he's played in*.
On the field, he’s undersized. He moves at average speed, but he’s the coolest head. In a line from his autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, he explains just how little he cares about pressure.
On the day leading up to the 2006 World Cup Final, he tells us, “I spent the afternoon sleeping and playing PlayStation. Then I went out and won the World Cup.” That’s all he wrote about it. It was apparently that simple.
So does he even care? He says he does. He says he does very much. Is he so aloof that his performance suffers? Look at his record. He has the numbers — he wins. He’s been helped by having great teams though, so you dig through the internet, watch the games, and you see, no, it’s not just the team that wins, he wins.
On the field, Pirlo is most often lurking in the bottom hemisphere of the midfield. Right ahead of him is where most of the game's clashes happen. It's where both sides are trying to win possession of the ball. The challenges are coming from the front, from the back, and either side too. Strikers drop into this zone and chop at you clumsily. Big center-backs will sometimes hunt it, and you’re almost certain to find at least one guy in there who thinks he’s the hardest man on the field.
That’s where Pirlo has to get the ball through.
It means taking a slice out of the other team’s first line of defense.
He’ll do it on the dribble if he’s got to. He’s a physical dribbler. He’s not doing moves, he’s positioning his body between the defender and the ball, bouncing off knocks and shoves, leading his pursuers on arcs that are sudden and can go in any direction. Almost like a fighter jet pilot trying to lose his man, when someone is on him, Pirlo loops and rolls.
But his weapon of choice is the pass, and he’s looking to get the ball by as many defenders in one pass as he can. That means using the through ball, the shiv.
If you need data, Squawka measured his 2013/2014 league passing completion at 89%, which is high but he has peers around the world connecting at a percentage a few points higher. Combine this 89% though with the fact that he creates more chances than his peers, passes the ball a longer distance on average than they do, and makes more key passes per game, and we see the reason for his slightly lower percentage -- his passes are usually through balls, always a more risky proposition. He’s trying to cut through more players than anybody else. He’s trying to win his team more forward space, and that means moving the ball through areas that are well-defended. When you get down to it, he goes for kills more than anybody else, that’s why his completion percentage is a little low, but watch out, because it’s not that low.
Pirlo has a world-class arsenal in two feet. For speedy forwards, like national teamer Mario Balotelli, Pirlo launches diagonal drives over the defense, to the corners usually, for players like Mario to gallop after.
When the team is knocking the ball around the opponent’s penalty box, can’t find a way through, Pirlo might gently chip the ball in over the defense. He did it in a game for Juventus against Lazio. He landed his pass on the chest of Simone Pepe, who then bicycle kicked the ball in, a wonder goal.
In UEFA’s Euro 2012 tournament, Pirlo and the Italians were matched with Spain in the group stages, and in the 60th minute, Pirlo received a pass at half field and showed the Spanish what happens when you leave him in open space. The move started with a simple burst of speed, Pirlo was by the first Spaniard and into the space between the midfield and the defense.The Spanish defenders tried to hold their line, but Pirlo was running at them, and they had to know this nonchalant Shiv, this long-haired, bearded l’architetto** was going to slip a pass behind them. Pirlo could have drawn them a picture of it happening and handed it to them.
The pass was a through ball to Antonio Di Natale, who’d been running parallel across the offsides line, revving to go. It was a rolling pass between the defenders. Just perfectly out of their reach. The ball deadened right outside the penalty box, where Di Natale met it. He didn’t need an extra touch, just a strike, a blast by the Spanish goalkeeper. Blood was drawn — 1-0 Italy.
That assist against Spain was straightforward. The defense knew they were going to get beat. They knew exactly what was going to happen, and Pirlo executed the move like he’d done it a hundred times on the field, a thousand times on his PlayStation.
What vaults Pirlo to the level of genius are his plays that nobody sees coming. It’s how ahead of the curve he is at times. Not only is his mind cool, but it is smart.
His intelligence shows in his free kicks as well.
Juventus versus Roma, September 29, 2012: Juventus wins a free kick, just off-center, about twenty-two yards out. Now, this kick is so close that it’s almost too close. From this distance, most free kick-takers are going to have trouble swinging the ball over the wall, and getting it back down again before reaching the goal. Most players send this free kick screaming into the 10th row. Also, on nearly every free kick, what do defenders in the wall do? They jump. They know the kick-taker is going to try to hurl a looping ball over their heads, so, they jump -- in hope of taking that 80 mph shot in the head, or in the chest. If they’re lucky.
Back to that September game. The referee blows the whistle. Pirlo runs to the ball and shoots an ankle-high, side-winding curl. It rips by the edge of the wall, leaving the players in it all looking foolish for jumping at a ball that is at their feet. The goalkeeper doesn’t know what’s coming either. The ball heads towards the side of the goal he’s covering, nearly right at him, and he just stands there, like he’s still waiting for the ball to dip down over the wall, when it’s already behind him in the goal.
Pirlo fooled everybody.
But a lot of players will score goals in league games in September. A lot of center midfielders will play through balls and their teammates will score in group stage games. When we talk about legends, we talk about players who perform in the biggest games.
The knockout stages of the World Cup is as big as it gets. In the 2006 tournament, the knockout stage was when the favorites began to fall. Hosted by Germany, the bookies had Brazil at number one, Argentina second. Both teams went out in the quarterfinals. The Germans beat Argentina from the penalty spot after a 1-1 game in Berlin, where the crowd, nearly 100% backing the Germans, willed the team on. From 1-0 down, the Germans battled to a 4-2 shootout victory. The hosts were through to the semifinal.
The Italians had entered the tournament at 17 to 2 odds. Nobody had picked them to do a thing. But they cruised through their group games, scoring 5 goals while only giving up 1. Pirlo was killing, picking up Man of the Match awards, sharpening his knives against his opponents’ backs.
In the quarterfinal, Italy faced Ukraine. An early goal meant Pirlo’s team led from the 6th minute on. The Ukrainians had a high-powered attack, but every situation was dealt with. The Italian’s only blemish came when their beloved goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon, whacked his head against the goalpost while diving for a save.
They won 3-0.
Next name on the bracket?
The game would be played in the west German city of Dortmund. The Germans had never lost a game there. The stadium was packed with German fans, who showed up dressed in all-white, ready to see Die Mannschaft *** roll over any Italians. Even pre-game, they were out singing. Pirlo, you can imagine, was maybe sleeping in the locker room.
His autobiography tells a story of when he was still a kid playing for Brescia. A rival club, Atalanta, was plotting to buy him. He was already a star at fourteen, and already on the minds of club presidents. Atalanta’s man in charge, while taken by Pirlo’s talents, decided his club would not tempt the youngster to change allegiances. The president is quoted as saying, “Pirlo stays where he is. People like him should be left in peace…I don’t want him to feel any kind of pressure. He must remain a player who belongs to everyone”.
Atalanta’s president couldn’t have known that he had nothing to worry about in terms of taking away Pirlo’s peace. With a jersey on, especially the national team’s blue, the man seems impossible to fluster, impossible to influence. His mood and focus seem immune to outside forces. But this notion that Pirlo belongs to everyone, that he’s a player who needs to be preserved and treasured hits on the fact that Pirlo shows others what they aren’t seeing. He is for everyone because he is a pioneer. He shows the way, then lets everyone else enjoy the spoils.
World Cup semifinal, Italy versus Germany, 0-0, the 105th minute: Lukas Podolski, a young German striker, finds himself wide open in the Italian penalty box. It seems to surprise him to be left so open. He puts his hand up. David Odonkor spots him. He plays the ball on a perfect line to Podolski’s head. Podolski is in the center of the box, about at the penalty spot, he attacks the ball, nobody is around him, the crowd is roaring, time for glory, time for singing oh wie ist das schon****. He heads the ball — it goes way wide.
The crowd groans.
That’s a goal 9 times out of 10. That’s Italy down 1-0. At that point, to tip the Germans off the high ground, to get a goal back, while the Germans are in the arms of their own country, nestled in Dortmund, when they need to hold on for just 15 more minutes, would take an impossible amount of energy. That would have been 15 minutes of Germans with their nails in, heads up, asses down.
Lukas Podolski had the chance to send Germany to the World Cup Final. He did the right thing. He put his hand up. He took the shot. He just missed it.
Before the goal kick is taken, the whistle blows to mark the end of the first half of extra time.
Generally speaking, the second half of extra time, the 106th to 120th minute, is more open than the first. By the second half, players are exhausted. Fresh substitutes enter, and they usually find they can motor around and work the open field, create more scoring opportunities for their team. But also, the players seem to be more willing to take chances in this period. They must sense penalty kicks coming, and most don’t want to walk that gauntlet. Most want to win as a team, or they want to lose that way. Most don’t want to have to stare off into the crowd, or at the ball, or the goal, as they walk that long lonely walk, from their teammates huddled at half field, to the torture that goes down at the penalty spot.
This second half of extra time was no different.
It was end-to-end.
The 107th minute, 0-0: Italy’s Totti starts a counter-attack that ends in a corner kick Germany’s keeper gathers.
The 108th minute, 0-0: Germany fires back. Full back Philipp Lahm gets forward, gets open and shoots from the top of the box. He sends the ball over.
The 110th minute, 0-0: Italy is back, and the game continues this way up until the very end.
The chances keep coming for both teams. Each attack is a piercing through ball, or a pass whipped across the box, a corner, or a shot on goal. Both goalkeepers are shouting orders, zipping around their boxes, leaping on balls, starting counterattacks with long outlets.
The ratcheting of the pressure only subsides during moments that seem almost serene. They're maybe a few seconds long. They're when, after going at this frenetic pace for five minutes straight, the players, too tired to attack, too tired to defend, jog through the open midfield, which is now just cut up grass and sliced off tape, and it's one team moving the ball from their side of the field to the other’s, just being watched, not challenged.
Pirlo is fairly quiet for most of the second half of extra time. He hunts by hiding. He's watching his team's attacks get thwarted. He’s watching how Germany defends. He knows not to simply run in recklessly and try to slam your shiv in your opponent, you have to watch them, you have to know their patterns. Notice the things about them that they don’t know.
The 118th minute, 0-0: 40 yards from the German goal, an Italian loops the ball back towards the center after it almost bounces out of bounds — Pirlo takes it down on his chest. It’s a few touches, a German swipes but gets nothing, the ball is on Pirlo’s left foot. He readies himself to shoot, and the strike has power, it’s going near post, against the grain and against Pirlo’s momentum, but Germany’s keeper, Jens Lehmann, dives and is able to knock the ball aside, out for a corner kick.
All game, Lehmann has been coming off his line, into the fray, and catching the Italians’ corners. He’s got a crazy man’s look in his eye, it’s mostly supreme focus, but there have to be a few screws loose for a goalkeeper to be great. And Lehmann is great. He watches Italy’s Del Piero get ready to send in the corner kick. He spits in his gloves a few times.
Del Piero crosses, the mix is too heavy, Lehmann can’t come for it. The ball is contested in the air, a German knocks it down and it falls to Pirlo, who is standing, all alone, at nearly the center of the half-circle that crowns the busy penalty box.
Pirlo is in a position where he could fire a shot, but it would have to navigate through a mess of players in the box, then by the two Germans still guarding the goal’s corners, and of course he’d have to beat Lehmann.
Pirlo is not a player who tries to slam the ball in where there is no weakness.
He takes two dribbles to the right, staying just on the edge of the box, moving the ball parallel to the goal, almost oddly, like he’s going to dribble the ball to the touchline, but this movement is what opens the defense. He’s watching the Germans react, waiting until they show skin.
Four defenders converge on him. The hole is there. The through ball is on. Pirlo sees it, but then quickly looks away. He’s looking at the crowd looking at him when he plays that pass. Nobody knows he sees it until he snaps the ball through, pass the defenders, to Fabio Grosso, the Italian left-back. Grosso strikes with his left foot, he curls the ball, through defenders, around Lehmann, and into the side netting.
With one minute of extra time left, Italy score again. That’s just how this sport is. For 118 minutes, a goal can’t be found. In the last two, it’s bang bang, and the Germans are on the ground. The whistle blows and the crowd is stunned in Dortmund. The Germans are crying. That was 118 minutes of holding your breath, 2 of electricity.
While Pirlo is walking off the field, scratching his beard, running his hands through his hair, he doesn’t know yet who Italy will face in the Final in Berlin — it’s Portugal or France.
He sees something shiny laying in the grass. He picks it up. It’s a rock — small but hard, concealable. He grinds it against the edge of his cleat, blows away the dust. It’ll sharpen.
* Champions League ’03 and ’07. World Cup ’06. Serie A ’04, ’11, ’12, ’13, and ’14. Coppa Italia ’03.
** Amongst national team players, Pirlo's nickname is the architect.
*** The nickname Germans have given to their national team, which means The Team.
**** A song the German fans chant that roughly translates to, 'oh how beautiful this is'.