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Saturday evening will be a strange one for Andrea Pirlo. This time last season he had fallen out of favor with his manager as his Milan teammates charged through Serie A en route to their 18th scudetto. Twelve months later he has become an integral part in orchestrating Juventus’ offense as they make their own charge for the league title.

The midfield maestro was extremely important in the way Milan played in the early to mid 2000s; with the rossoneri Pirlo won nearly every domestic and international title there is save the UEFA Cup/Europa League. However, when Max Allegri replaced Leonardo a season and a half ago, he reshaped the midfield into a more defensive, physical outfit, rendering Pirlo more or less a luxury player. Additionally, injuries plagued Pirlo’s last season with Milan, thus giving the club all the more reason to let him walk on a free transfer.

At 32, there were many that thought Pirlo had entered the dusk of his career and would see out the rest of his time as a footballer on a massive contract in an exotic (read Dubai) locale. Juventus made a surprise move for the midfielder during Gigi Delneri’s last days at the club, and there were questions as to how he would fit into new manager Antonio Conte’s tactical plans. Conte’s Siena frequently utilized a high-octane 4-2-4 offense, an effective Serie B formation, but suicidal in the top division. No rational person would think that Andrea Pirlo, not being the most mobile player on the field to begin with, could fit into said formation. Like any manager worth his salt, Conte adapted, opting for a more conventional, yet still attacking, 4-3-3 where Pirlo would sit deep alongside more energetic players such as Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. The formation suited Pirlo perfectly; with two other central midfielders doing most of the running, Andrea would be able to work his magic, and early season results proved this to be true.

While Conte has experimented with a 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, and more recently a 3-5-2 formation, the one constant has been Pirlo’s presence in the midfield as he has played the third most minutes (2,078) on the team, only behind defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Andrea Barzagli. Pirlo is also third in the league in assists (seven) and leads the league in average passes per game (81.5) while completing 85.5% of all passes.

Pirlo has undoubtedly been Juventus’ main creative hub so far this season, but what is most surprising has been his durability, playing in 22 of the team’s 23 league matches. His fitness has improved dramatically as well in spite of the increased workload, a concern going into the season due to his numerous injury problems in recent seasons. Conte’s fitness regimen must be credited, as watching Pirlo this season one sees a player that looks more mobile and fitter than in previous years, often going the full distance of matches. Pirlo’s former manager at Milan and current Paris Saint-Germain boss Carlo Ancelotti recently stated that Pirlo “will play well up to his forties. He’s the strongest midfielder in the world, Barca included.”

Having another veteran presence in the locker room has helped the bianconeri as well; on a team that surprisingly lacked leadership the past two seasons in spite of the collective presence of Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, having someone like Pirlo in the team, a player who has won trophies at every level, has been a major boost for everyone at the club. On the field, he is the team’s metronome; so goes Pirlo, so goes Juve. Although the lack of creativity in other areas makes the team heavily reliant on Pirlo, fortunately for Juventus the Flero-born midfielder has been in excellent form for most of the season.

As we enter into the final third of the campaign, Juventus will need Andrea Pirlo to continue engineering performances like the one against Catania last week if they are to remain in the title race. Another excellent performance Saturday night, on the field where he first made his name as a footballer, will go a long way in keeping his former club right in Juventus’s cross hairs.

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