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His vision and movement are naturally complimented by his creativity. The man does not need an introduction nor a meter of space to create a bit of magic.

Merely a month after playing an entire Season of Serie A, Coppa Italia and most recently, the 2015 Champions League Final, Andrea Pirlo found himself thrown into the midst of a four-month-old, chemistry-lacking, tactic-less NYCFC team in their inaugural season with players who, simply put, weren’t Paul Pogba or Arturo Vidal.

Coming from his home country where he’d became the undisputed master of the midfield for the past 15 years, Pirlo became the stuff of folklore and myth. Instead of taking offers from Inter Milan, the midfield virtuoso left for a different league, in a different country, on a different continent. These factors would always instill a pure shock effect for the 37-year-old Italian expert. On top of that, adapting to a new league is always toughest for a midfield player, especially for a midfielder like Pirlo, who is neither labeled as an attacking midfielder nor a defensive midfielder but rather a regista; a director of the play’s flow. For a striker, the goals are the same dimensions everywhere in the world. For a midfielder, their entire surrounding changes. Immediately after joining the fray in late July of 2015, Pirlo was burdened with almost all of NYCFC’s defensive midfield work which hindered his ability to create and open up plays. The ex-Italy international understandably found it hard getting anything going with his new compatriots. “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play,” the Italian told REUTERS.com in an interview.

Although the regista would grab five assists in three months with Bronx-based outfit, most of the assists were Pirlo-famous pings to arguably the only other player on the pitch with the same footballing IQ as the Maestro, David Villa. NYCFC would finish their inaugural 2015 MLS season with a 10-7-17 record (37 points) which was good enough to put the New York City outfit in eighth place out of ten in the MLS’ Eastern Conference and 17th out of 20 overall. Their play was nothing short of shaky and, at times, unwatchable.

2016, however, is a much different story.

Coming into the season, pundits and analysts alike wondered how newly introduced coach Patrick Vieira would fit an aging Andrea Pirlo into his plans. Perhaps Vieira would play Pirlo a match and rest him a match? Perhaps the Maestro would play only 45 minutes or so of every game? Perhaps Vieira would only play Pirlo seldomly for that shiny toy effect?

No.

The Maestro started all 32 games he featured in this season and missed only two games out of the 34-game MLS season in which NYCFC mustered a single point combined (a 2-0 loss at Philadelphia Union and a 1-1 draw at Toronto FC). By and large, Pirlo has been an absolute staple of Vieira’s out-of-the-back gameplan that NYCFC have slowly and slowly mastered over the course of the 2016 MLS season. “Last year was a little more difficult. It was a new team, new players playing together for the first time. This season we started with a solid base and we just kept improving along the way,” the former Juve man told ESPN FC.

Pirlo’s New York City FC have finished the 2016 MLS season with a 15-9-10 record (54 points) which saw them finish second out of ten in the MLS Eastern Conference, missing first place by three points, and fourth out of 20 overall. Not only have the Celestes clinched the MLS Cup Playoffs in only their second season of existence, they’ve grabbed a first-round BYE while doing it, seeing that they’d receive a week’s rest while their eventual opponents, who we now know will be Sebastian Giovinco’s Toronto FC, had to slug out a one game knockout-match in the middle of the week.

Let’s look at the numbers:

NYCFC Leaders

Minutes Played

  1. David Villa (2,869 mins)
  2. Frederic Brillant (2,790 mins)
  3. Andrea Pirlo (2,770 mins)

With concerns over the sheer physicality and run-and-gun style of the league, analysts theorized Pirlo would play about half of the games in 2016. Well, the man played the third most amount of minutes only losing out to captain David Villa and consistently healthy defender Fred Brillant.

Average Passing Length

  1. Andrea Pirlo (23 meters)
  2. Frederic Brillant (22 meters)
  3. Jefferson Mena (20 meters)

It’s no surprise: Pirlo loves the long ball and, naturally, leads the team with length of the average pass.

Attempted passes

  1. Andrea Pirlo (1,612)
  2. Frederic Brillant (1,478)
  3. Andoni Iraola (1,210)

NYCFC relied heavily on Pirlo’s ability to move the ball up, down and around the pitch.

Successful Passes

  1. Andrea Pirlo (1,310 passes)
  2. Frederic Brillant (1,242 passes)
  3. Andoni Iraola (1,044 passes)

The connection between Pirlo, Iraola and the defense was initially a frustrating mess but gradually became fascinating to watch as the season progressed. Vieira’s stubbornness in making NYCFC play goal-kicks out of the back took some (a lot of) getting used to but the system has stuck and it is clear that it is through the bearded wizard in which NYCFC play their controlling game.

Chances Created

  1. Andrea Pirlo (63)
  2. David Villa (46)
  3. Tommy McNamara (35)

Being NYCFC’s dead-ball specialist, in addition to having an eye for the through ball, Pirlo’s pings and whipping crosses created numerous opportunities for the sophomore year club. He also scored his only goal of the season in a dead-ball situation after wonderfully bending a free kick past Philadelphia keeper Andre Blake in a 3-2 win for the City Celestes.

Assists

  1. Andrea Pirlo (11 assists)
  2. Khiry Shelton, Tommy McNamara (9 assists)
  3. Jack Harrison (7 assists)

It’s no surprise that NYCFC’s attacks end with a Pirlo pass. Watching the Italian link up with Spaniard David Villa is what footballing dreams are made of.

Tackles

  1.  Ronald Matarrita (94 successful tackles)
  2.  Andrea Pirlo (69 successful tackles)
  3.  Andoni Iraola (63 successful tackles)

Talk of Pirlo’s defensive work rate often gets overlooked and pushed to the side when, in reality, the man is a constant nuisance for opposing attacks. He also leads NYCFC midfielders with 40 interceptions.

Fouls Suffered

  1. David Villa (71)
  2. Andrea Pirlo (32)
  3. Tommy McNamara (28)

NYCFC’s possession game is very annoying for opposing MLS teams and, if you’re the center of this possession-style game, you will promptly be fouled out of sheer frustration. This shows that, aside from the goal-scoring machine that is David Villa, Andrea Pirlo spends a large portion of NYCFC’s time on the ball and is a constant outlet for his teammates, often getting fouled on interception attempts.

Compared to all MLS Midfielders

The Maestro is fifth among midfielders in minutes played (2,675) [1st: Lee Nguyen, 2,806]. He is third out of all MLS midfielders in total attempted passes (1,612) [1st: Osvaldo Alonso, 1,998] and is third overall in passes completed (1,310) [1st: Osvaldo Alonso, 1,816]. With a passing accuracy of 81%, Andrea is ranked 36th out of all MLS midfielders (1st: Osvaldo Alonso, 91%]. The ex-Italy international leads midfielders in the league in average distance of each pass (23 meters) and is fourth in the league in chances created (63) [1st: Sacha Kljestan, 86]. Pirlo is eighth in the league with 11 assists [1st: Sacha Kljestan, 20].

With a full season of MLS under his belt, Andrea Pirlo has weaved his way into the elite names of MLS. The midfield virtuoso is a key part of Vieira’s project and has helped guide NYCFC to their first ever playoff berth. His impact helped turn a team with no chemistry whatsoever into a fluid-flowing, possession-driven MLS powerhouse. His output has helped NYCFC become a club of immense power and he will be looking forward to thriving on the pressure that comes with playoff football. Andrea Pirlo and NYCFC will play their first ever playoff game against Toronto FC in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference semifinals in a home-and-home series. The first leg will be played tomorrow night at Toronto’s own BMO Field at 7:00PM ET on FS1.

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