Soaring on the wings of the little owl
They call Marco Verratti the gufetto, the little owl, because of his eyes -- those big, glacial-blue eyes -- and the rotation of his head. He sees everything on the pitch. Nothing goes unnoticed. If a teammate makes a run, he does so confident that Verratti will have seen him, expectant that the ball will not only be played into feet but onto his preferred foot.
The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder's vision is stereoscopic. His perception of depth and distance appears different to other footballers'. Play the ball at this speed and that angle on the ground or over the top and whatever pressure he and his team are coming under is released. All in the blink of those binocular-like eyes.
And yet until the past fortnight, Verratti couldn't discern what was on the horizon. Would he be going to the World Cup or not? It was unclear. Back in March, Italy played a friendly against Spain at the Vicente Calderon. Andrea Pirlo started on the bench, so the expectation was that Verratti would take his place in the team. Instead it went to his PSG teammate Thiago Motta.
When Cesare Prandelli came to make a series of changes in the second half, Verratti wasn't among the six substitutes introduced. He didn't make an appearance, not even in the final minutes. The 21-year-old's stock seemed to have fallen, and his place in the midfield pecking order with it. Had Prandelli lost confidence in Verratti?
Absolutely not. He reminded everyone how he had called the youngster up to his provisional squad for Euro 2012 even though he was still a teenager and had been playing in Serie B for Pescara. So why did Prandelli cool toward his protege? There was a definite sense that the precocious Verratti still had a lot to learn.
"He has paid for a well-known trait of ours," Prandelli told Corriere dello Sport. "We love anything that's new. But after 15 games the eyes with which you watch a young player are different. Everything goes OK in the beginning then you become more demanding with him."
Prandelli wanted to see progress. That might come across as harsh on a player who had already established himself as a regular at PSG. What the coach meant, though, was evidence that Verratti was taking the advice of his peers on board. Last season Carlo Ancelotti, then manager at PSG, had often reprimanded him for taking one too many touches around his penalty area. Sooner or later he'd get caught, lose the ball and present his opponents with a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Verratti listened but seemed reluctant to adapt.
A thrill seeker, you get the impression with him that nothing beats the adrenaline rush of being surrounded and then discovering an escape route.
"I have played like that since I was small," he told L'Equipe. "So it's difficult to change. I don't like to clear the ball without knowing where it's going. I prefer to play it out properly. Even when I am defending, I try to start a move immediately and give it to a teammate even if I am pressed by two or three opponents."
Like a quarterback in a collapsing pocket looking for the perfect spiral -- "a graceful movement is better than a physical action" -- Verratti either sends a player through on goal or he gets stripped of possession. When the latter happens, if he is not already on his backside, he tends to dive in desperately to recover it.
Of the demands Prandelli has made of him, the first was "not to end up on his arse. A midfielder playing in front of the defence can't slide in." The second was "to put his undoubted technical ability at the service of the team. I want to say he has to orientate himself more with the play, widen his sphere of influence, see broader and deeper." Anonymous but for playing Daniele De Rossi into trouble in a 2-1 defeat to Argentina last August, Prandelli feared the hype around Verratti as "the next Pirlo" was maybe conditioning him.
"I have asked Marco not to 'fossilise' in one position... He can't only think about playing like Pirlo," he said. That wasn't entirely fair to Verratti.
"I was born a trequartista," the young maestro explained to La Repubblica. "I played regista with Zdenek Zeman in a 4-3-3, interno in a 4-4-2 with Ancelotti, and on the outside of midfield in a 4-3-3 with Thiago Motta at the lowest point of a midfield triangle under Blanc. I have covered all the roles. I don't lack the desire to sacrifice myself."
In truth, Prandelli only had the player's best interests at heart. The Italy coach saw PSG sign Yohan Cabaye in January and feared that if Verratti didn't adapt, he might lose his place. Emulating his idol Pirlo was also not to be discouraged, although there was one problem: Pirlo is still playing, and if Verratti wanted to be considered as anything other than an alternative to him he would have to offer something different.
To say he has responded is an understatement. After retaining the Ligue 1 title and winning the Coupe de la Ligue, Verratti was voted Young Player of the Year and named in L'Equipe's Team of the Season. Only one other individual in it had a higher average rating in the paper and that was his teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic, from whom Verratti claims to have caught the "angry desire to win" -- a contagion that perhaps explains his Napoleon-like histrionics, the little big man yapping away at referees.
But for all the accolades, Prandelli still needed some convincing. Verratti arrived at Italy's Coverciano training camp as one of the players needing to prove he merited inclusion in the final 23. He rose to the challenge. Against Ireland, Verratti played as though on a magic roundabout. "He started high, then low, then to the left," Zeman remarked for La Gazzetta dello Sport. "For me, he was the best player on the pitch. I'll repeat two words to you: 'Sa giocare' -- he knows how to play." The pink paper had him as their man of the match in the 1-1 draw with Luxembourg, too.
For the first time, Prandelli played Pirlo and Verratti together from the start in a 4-1-3-1-1. Many expect to see Italy use the doppio regista tactic against England. In the heat and humidity of Manaus, the Azzurri's opponents could be made to think they're seeing double. Because with Verratti on the pitch it might feel like Italy have two Pirlos. That tactical novelty could unsettle England.
"We have to be capable of changing, of daring to do something different," Prandelli said. Don't let the film mislead you, eagles aren't the only birds who dare. Owls do, too, and with that in mind, perhaps the risk-taking gufetto could be the one to make Italy soar in Brazil this summer.