Cesc Fabregas says he plays like Xavi and now Italy’s Marco Verratti is ready to become Europe’s premier pass-master, writes Adam Digby.
When Claudio Marchisio pulled up injured during Italy’s training session last Friday, few could have expected the outrage it would cause. The Azzurri medical staff reported that the Juventus midfielder had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament – a problem that would rule him out for the rest of the season – only for the Turin club to insist that was not the case when their own doctors analysed his knee later that day.
With Paul Pogba already sidelined and Andrea Pirlo yet to recover from a calf strain, the loss of Marchisio would have undoubtedly hampered Juve’s Champions League ambitions, but few stopped to consider how his unexpected departure would affect the national team. Daniele De Rossi was also absent from the squad, leaving Antonio Conte extremely short of options as his side prepared to face Bulgaria in their latest Euro 2016 qualifier this past weekend.
The Azzurri would stutter to a 2-2 draw in Sofia, looking disjointed and out-of-sorts for large portions of the match, but there was little doubt that PSG’s Marco Verratti had shouldered the burden in midfield extremely well. Often accused of immaturity, the 22 year old turned in an excellent performance despite the lack of quality around him, controlling the tempo of the game and filling the void left by Pirlo as he passed the ball superbly all evening.
No player across Europe’s top 5 leagues has completed more passes (1983) than Marco Verratti. this season. pic.twitter.com/hiMiPtR5x5
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 28, 2015
He remains a vastly different player to the bearded genius – more tenacious, quicker across the ground and more eager in the tackle – but he possesses similar vision and delivery to the man he is eventually expected to replace in the Italy side. Unlike Pirlo – and indeed the majority of young players in Serie A – Verratti’s career path has not followed the usual pattern of loans and co-ownership deals, the midfielder instead carving out a very different route after starting with a small local side near his home-town of Pescara.
Spotted by Antonio Di Battista – the head of Pescara’s academy – he opted to join the Lega Pro side rather than Atalanta or Inter, who had both already approached him. Playing for the club’s under-16s, he made such an impression in an away game against AC Milan that the Rossoneri offered him a trial. Spending the night in the northern city as he awaited a medical, homesickness got the better of him.
“He cried and said: ‘I want to go back to Pescara’,” Di Battista recalled later, and Verratti would do just that, making his first-team debut as at the age of 15 and becoming a regular just 12 months later.
Like Pirlo, his early days were spent as a No. 10, playing just behind the strikers as Pescara earned promotion to Serie B, but after the arrival of Zdenek Zeman and his 4-3-3 formation Verratti moving into the deep-lying playmaker role.
My God. When Andrea Pirlo gives the ball away like that it’s put down to his age, I imagine it’ll be the same for Marco Verratti there
— Adam Digby (@Adz77) March 28, 2015
“I always liked the idea of changing position,” Verratti told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“When he proposed it to me the movements came naturally. I thought that this is the role that suits me the most. Zeman told me that as long as I did fewer back-heels it would all be fine. I trusted him and now I can say that he was right.”
The Czech coach certainly was, Pescara earning promotion to the top flight as Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne blossomed under his guidance. Italy’s giant clubs clamoured for his signature, with Juventus – the club he supported as a boy – believed to be at the head of the queue. Then came a call from Paris Saint-Germain, offering far more money for a player who had never played in Serie A than any of that division’s sides were willing to pay, and a deal was quickly struck.
While his departure was lamented in Italy, Verratti shone almost instantly in Ligue 1 after immediately being given a role in the team by Carlo Ancelotti, something that would perhaps not have happened in his homeland. At the end of his first season in France he had made 32 appearances, but received an alarming 14 yellow cards, many as a result of arguing with officials just as his more experienced team-mates did.
Where the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic tend to receive leniency, the young midfielder has regularly seen his name taken by referees, racking up no less than 36 bookings in less than three seasons. Yet his play continued to improve, with only Xabi Alonso having connected with more attempted passes this term across Europe’s top five leagues, testament to him taking on board the advice of his coaches who asked him not to over play the ball near his own penalty area.
He responded to the criticism of his play and his move abroad in the best possible manner, winning two league titles after arriving at the Parc des Princes and being voted France’s Young Player of the Year last term. He will finally run out at Juventus Stadium on Tuesday, but will be wearing the Azzurri shirt of Italy rather than the famous black and white stripes of La Vecchia Signora. The home side will still depend on him as they face England, but given his experiences in the French capital he is unlikely to be overawed and, with no Pirlo alongside him, he will perhaps have one eye on another encounter that looms on the horizon.
The Champions League draw has once again paired PSG with Barcelona, and after Verratti helped eliminate Chelsea in the previous round, Cesc Fabregas compared the Italian to a Camp Nou legend.
“Marco Verratti is an exceptional player, an exceptional talent,” the former Arsenal star said after their encounter at Stamford Bridge. “I don’t want this to be anything big, but he reminds me a little bit of Xavi.”
High praise indeed and, with the iconic Catalan set to leave Europe for Al-Sadd at the end of the season and Pirlo’s own career winding down, the stage is set for Marco Verratti to perhaps become the continent’s premier passer.