The loss of pace: Football’s Ageing Maestros

Eighteen years old: Your legs are fresh and new. Your limbs beg to hit the ground and sprint. You are capable of running for ninety minutes straight with unending buzz and unstoppable stamina.

Twenty-six years old: You have been running for a number of years but now you feel a slight sense of pull-back. You can still run, run for an hour without noticing, but you lack the natural, almost unnoticed bite you once had. You are hitting your prime years now, but you are conscious that it won’t last forever.

Thirty-four years old: It’s a slaving task now. Your muscles have tightened and your sprints don’t have the same reach that was there four or five years ago. You can’t track back as often, or as effectively. You prefer to stay in the one spot, convincing yourself that you are of more use in a single fixed position. Where once upon a time you seeked out the ball, the ball would now have to be brought to you.

It is the single outstanding difference in football that no coach or manager, gameplan or tactic can prevent: speed. If a player is faster than you there is very little you can do to stop him. You can foul him, but two yellow cards equals a sending off. You can double-mark him, but that’s wasting a whole player on stopping only one of the opposition’s and this will leave gaps.

Take Arjen Robben for example. Arjen Robben has been doing the exact same trick, the exact same shimmy, cut-inside from the right manoeuvre for the past ten years. He knows that he is going to do it, his marker knows he is going to do it, even the opposition manager knows that he is going to do it. So why has no one found a solution? Answer: there isn’t one.

In the animal kingdom, speed sets apart predator from prey, eating from being eaten. And there is no exception in football. If a player is faster than you and manages to get himself and the ball around your body, there is simply no catching them. Raheem Sterling has shown us this time after time.

Per Mertesacker, Rio Ferdinand and Richard Dunne have more times than can be counted been the victims of this unfortunate reality. With their height and bulk physique that is of aid to a robust centre back, these features betray them when a young sprightly Eden Hazard or Angel di Maria comes running at them with unending pace.

But the contradiction, the anti-thesis of this whole entire argument, lies in the form of a handful of professional footballers who have been able to make it to the pinical of world football and been regarded as some of the finest players to have played the game, in their old age, when pace is fleeting and speed is a distant memory of their youth.

Indeed in their younger years they may have once had speed as their alley, but it is the remarkable sight that with age, when their legs are supposed to have worn thin from years of playing, that they mastered the trade and reached their peak years in their early to mid thirties.

Such players do not rely on speed or pace, but have managed to rekindle their careers through intelligent understanding and technical ability. These are the ageing masters of football.

Francesco Totti, 38

Totti has redefined himself in recent years. With 237 Serie A goals under his belt, the Francesco the world knew as a stealthy finisher was thought to have been decaying under boss Luis Enrique three years ago. However under the management of Rudi Garcia, Totti has been the focal point in the resurgence of AS Roma. Playing the nowadays rarely witnessed role as a classi trequartista, Totti is the undeniable fulcrum of all Roma attacks. With restricted mobility to roam about the pitch as he used to, Totti drifts deep or pulls wide to attract the ball and provide one of his mezmorising passes, ultimately creating something out of pure nothing. Now 38, the captain of the Eternal City has not looked out of depth or lacking behind in his age. Rather he has made fellow, younger players in Serie A look bad by being outdone time after time, year after year by this stalwart of Calcio.

Andrea Pirlo, 35

Like many of the players already mentioned, Pirlo has managed to reignite the flickering flame of a spiralling career seeming to peter out like any other. Having won two Scudettos and two UEFA Champions Leagues at Milan, Pirlo was let go on a free transfer to Juventus, having only made 17 appearances in his final season at San Siro. However under the guidance of Antonio Conte, Pirlo was re-moulded into one of the most creative and inventive playmakers in recent footballing history. Already a beautiful passer of the ball before arriving at Juventus, what seemed to have lay dormant inside Andrea Pirlo was suddenly awoken in dramatic and sintilating fashion. Since joining Juve in the summer of 2011, Pirlo has won three consecutive Serie A titles as well as getting to the final of EURO 2012 with Italy where he proved exceptional in his role of deep-lying midfielder. Unmarkable at times, Pirlo drifts around the pitch at his own pace, taking and giving the ball, playing defence-cutting through balls and generally reading the game quicker than his opponents.

John Terry, 34

By the end of the 2012/13 season John Terry had made only 27 appearances for Chelsea Football Club in all competitions. The following season, under former boss José Mourinho, Terry made 47 appearances for Chelsea. Throughout the 2013/14 season Chelsea’s defence of Gary Cahill, César Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanović and John Terry conceded only 27 goals in 38 league games. Terry found a new lease of life under Mourinho, enjoying his greatest individual season since Chelsea last won the Premier League title in 2010. Having looked to be slowly retreating behind the curtain at Chelsea under Rafael Benitez after being found guilty for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand as well as being dropped as England captain, Terry was arguably the Premier League’s best defender along with centre-back partner Gary Cahill last season. He has shown that a slowing down of a defender’s sprinting capabilities need not be the undoing of one of the Premier League’s greatest ever footballers.

Antonio Di Natale, 37

Di Natale’s is the most bizarre of cases to be made for ageing players. Having not hit any great heights in his adolescent years as a professional footballer, Di Natale burst onto the scene when he joined, and was made captain of Udinese. In the past six seasons Di Natale has scored 127 goals – averaging 21 per season. This is a remarkable statistic for a striker now 37 years old. Often gone under the radar outside of Italy due to the inability of clubs to sign him both because of his age and his unwillingness to leave, Di Natale is the fifth highest goalscorer in the history of Serie A. Rumours of the player only training a couple of times a week due to his age and physical condition only adds fuel to the fascinating nature of his goal-scoring ability. Twice threatening to retire, most recently at the end of last season, the Italian has come back season after season after the age of 30 to score unappreciated volumes of goals for his Udinese.

Other past examples would naturally include Ryan Giggs, Paulo Maldini as well as Javier Zanetti. The nature of such players, who are adorned by watchers of the game, create a kind of cult following surrounding them. Footballers are supposedly meant to hit their average peak at 27 years old. But these men have redefined standards and existed outside of the norm in tremendous demeanor.

Although older, slower and less agile than fellow players, their years of experience, knack and cunning prowess have earned them not only respect on the pitch that transcends its own aura surrounding the players, but also has developed their footballing intelligence to a point where they simply do not need to run for ninety minutes straight. Appearing graceful, unfazed and always in control of a situation, these ageing maestro of the game have reinvented the set standard and accepted practise surrounding older players in which the glowing complexity of their individual dynamism will outlive the decaying nature of their exterior being.

Walter Mazzarri’s Evolution at San Siro

Evolution, not revolution. It is easy to get ahead of ourselves. A string of good performances and everything changes. It can be the difference between a manager getting sacked, or in this case, deserved recognition.

But in the case of 52 year old Inter boss Walter Mazzarri, it is so much more than just a ‘string of good performances’. What we are witnessing, what has been brewing for months now, is the rewards of subtlety, and shrewdness all so delicately and inattentively carried out by Walter Mazzarri.

It was on the accomplishments of his beloved Napoli side that Mazzarri was given the job at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. During four years at Naples, Mazzarri completely transformed a side that had lay in the doldrums of Serie C1 only five years prior to his appointment as manager.

 

Napoli

Glory days at Napoli
Glory days at Napoli

When appointed as manager of SSC Napoli in October of 2009 no one would have anticipated the transformation of the underachieving minnows under Mazzarri. Nicknamed the Sleeping Giants since the days of Maradona at the club, Napoli had always struggled to rekindle the form of El Diego’s 1990’s side. But after promotion to Serie A under Roberto Donnadoni and the addition of Mazzarri to the club, Napoli went on to establish a much loved and often since, underrated, side. With a brandish style of flowing counter-attacking football, Mazzarri implemented his system with very little money spent on transfers. In his first season at the Stadio San Pablo, he guided Napoli to a sixth place finish, thus qualifying for the Europa League through the now discontinued Intertoto Cup.

But it was in his second season that things took flight for Mazzarri at Napoli. With one of the bargains of the decade, Napoli brought in 23 year old Edison Cavani for €17 million (Cavani would later be sold for over €64 million). In return for the then large transfer fee, Cavani ended the season with 26 goals in Serie A, hauling Napoli to an astonishing third place finish. It was during the 2010-11 season that Mazzarri also implemented his infamous 3-4-3 formation. With Campagnaro, Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica at the back and the devastating combination of Marek Hamšík, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Cavani up front, Napoli lit up the Serie A with their fast paced and attack-minded approach of counter-attacking football.

A Copa Italia title and a UEFA Champions League run (Napoli’s first season in the Euopean Cup for twenty years) that ended with a shocking but equally underwhelming defeat to Chelsea in the last sixteen showcased the best that Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli had to offer. Finishing second in a group with Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Manchester City, Napoli’s European run attracted admirers all across Europe, whilst a fifth place finish in Serie A was largely forgiven with the victory over Juventus in the Copa Italia final in Rome. Mazzarri finished his Napoli reign in good fashion, finishing second in Serie A with a record 78 points.

 

Internazionale

It is not Walter Mazzarri’s method to simply rip up the old blueprint and start fresh all over again. With him it is more slow, patient. We may not take notice at first, but he will always be there, picking away slowly, patiently. From the outside you see so little. It may appear that nothing is actually changing at all. But with Walter Mazzarri there is always progress occurring. Always moving forward, slowly, always formulating a strategy, patiently.

It would be too simple to suggest that Inter’s 7-0 thrashing of Sassuolo was the beginning of a new era at the San Siro. Being backed to win Serie A this season by many, it appears that steam has certainly gathered behind the Inter fraytrain. But this is not a shock result. The scoreline appears inflated and catches the eye, but Inter have been a team building and progressing ever since Mazzarri took charge eighteen months ago. Evolution not revolution.

Although many suggest, and are justified in many ways, that Inter have been decaying and in a spriralling decline ever since Jose Mourinho left the club, the past year and a half not been so. Whereas Rafael Benitez, Leonardo, Gasperini (briefly), Claudio Ranieri and Andrea Stramaccioni did contribute to the decline, Mazzari has lifted Inter from the depths of their unending decline and has raised them. Last season, his first in charge, Mazzari led his Inter side to an anti-climactic fifth place finish. Fifteen wins. Fifteen draws. Fifteen draws. The most in Serie A that season. This was Inter’s obvious but futile undoing. Mazzari’s Inter simply could not convert enough draws into wins. Those are the statistics, but on the football on the pitch tells a different story.

 

Personnel and system

Mateo Kovačić: The new generation
Mateo Kovačić: The new generation

3-5-2: A familiar three at the back system for Mazzarri. It worked at Napoli and it is working at Inter. Playing with Gary Medel and Hernanes dropping deep, Mazzarri has given Mateo Kovacic a free role in the number ten ‘hole’ position. In front of him is the duo of Mauro Icardi and either of Paulo Osvaldo or Rodrigo Palacio. With Andrea Ranocchia patrolling the three man back line dropping slightly deeper than the other two centre backs, Mazzarri can play with attacking fullbacks in Yuto Nagatomo and new signing Dodô.

With the ageing Diego Milito, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Christian Chivu, as well as club captain Javier Zanetti and Ricky Alvarez leaving the club, Mazzarri has a young, keen squad at his disposal. With the irreplaceable Samir Handanovic, one of Europe’s top (and most underrated) goalkeepers, between the posts and new captain Andrea Ranocchia in defence, Inter look a reassured and compressed side without                                                                                                      possession.

However it is with the ball that Mazzarri has made progress. Mauro Icardi and Mateo Kovacic are the undeniable jewels in this Inter Milan team. Kovacic, at only 20 years old is the most promising young talent to come out of Serie A in years. Words cannot do justice to his vision, range of passing and confidence to dribble with the ball. With a hattrick against Stjarnan in Europa League qualification as well as another goal and two assists against Sassuolo, the rise of the young Serbian is inevitable, whilst any and all followers of Serie A know about Icardi. Still young at only 21, Icardi has already scored six goals for Inter so far this season. With vigorous drive and a willingness to press the ball, the only thing between Icardi and Europe’s top strikers, is time.

 

Opportunity

Opportunity: Resurrect the glorious past of Internazionale.
Opportunity: Resurrect the glorious past of Internazionale.

As with the dawn of every new season, there is great optimism in the blue half of Milan. Every season promises to be the one where Inter will project themselves once again and take their place amongst the top teams in Europe. With the decline of AC Milan, Ajax, Lyon as well as Inter, European competition has lost much of its traditional and beloved clubs. Yet it seems that this forthcoming season could indeed be one of opportunity to the Nerazzurri.

The confidence and progress that Walter Mazzarri has brought to this new Inter Milan side is undeniable. The decline of Rafael Benitez’s Napoli is Inter’s chance. A young, vibrant side is in Walter Mazzarri’s hands. New owners. Renewed optimism and the backing of the fans. This season is an opportunity that Inter cannot miss. They have failed in the past. But now there is light at the end of the torturous tunnel for fans of Internazionale.

It is not Walter Mazzarri’s method to simply rip up the old blueprint and start fresh all over again. With him it is more slow, patient. We may not take notice at first, but he will always be there, picking away slowly, patiently. From the outside you see so little. It may appear that nothing is actually changing at all. But with Walter Mazzarri there is always progress occurring. Always moving forward, slowly, always formulating a strategy, patiently. Evolution, not revolution.