Player Focus: Mirko Valdifiori - The new Pirlo of the Provinces
When Mirko Valdifiori was growing up, he didn’t declare an allegiance for any team. His father Nevio and sister Giulia were both Juventus supporters. Mother Angela rooted for Empoli, the club he turns out for today. “I instead preferred to follow my idol and which ever team he played for,” Valdifiori explained to Tuttosport. As a boy his hero was a shaven-headed playmaker from La Plata, known to everyone as La Brujita, the little witch, a certain Juan Sebastian Veron.
“I bought all the shirts he played in: Samp’s, Parma’s, Lazio’s, Manchester United’s, Argentina’s,” Valdifiori smiles. “He used to invent something out of nothing. Seba would score goals from 40 yards.” The kid from Russi can split defences like his icon. But try as he might Valdifiori could never hit the same screamers as Veron. In a decade-long career, he has found the back of the net only four times. Instead when he began playing professionally, his characteristics, that of a patient, tempo-setting passer in the centre of midfield, drew him to another role model.
“Andrea Pirlo. He makes the difficult things look so easy,” Valdifiori insists. “You often ask yourself: why on earth is he putting the ball there? Then in that instant, a teammate would appear…” Pirlo never ceases to amaze Valdifiori. He has studied him intently over the years. “I think back to the day in 2010 when I went to see a friendly between my town Russi against the national team. Upon observing Pirlo up close my jaw dropped.” Valdifiori has tried to take things from the regista’s game and add them to his own. “At times I’ve managed to pull off the move he does when he receives the ball from the centre-backs and then sends it to one of the forwards without even looking.”
Given the enthusiasm Valdifiori has for Pirlo there can surely be no greater compliment than to hear it said that his performances have shades of the Juventus maestro to them. The Empoli string puller has replaced the fading Francesco Lodi as the Pirlo of the Provinces. “I confess I’m flattered to be compared to him, a legend in my position. It’s of immense satisfaction,” Valdifiori said in La Gazzetta dello Sport, “a dream.”
The stats would indicate that it is not unmerited either. Valdifiori leads Serie A in passing. At 79.2 per game, he makes more than Pirlo [75.9]. He also edges the great man in the number considered key. No one plays more in Italy’s top flight than Valdifiori at 2.4 per game. As the great Samp coach Vujadin Boskov once put it, he’s a player who sees motorways where others see only footpaths.
“A lot of our play goes through me,” Valdifiori claims. “and I like being the centre of attention, putting my teammates through on goal.” He has five assists to his name. That’s the same total as Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic have conjured for Roma and equal to Felipe Anderson’s exploits at Lazio. When you factor in how goal-shy Empoli have been this season, scoring only 27 goals, his value is amplified because he has been directly involved in almost 20% of them. Many have originated from set-pieces.
Valdifiori isn’t one for curling free-kicks into the top corner like Pirlo. Instead he initiates smart dead-ball routines, a hallmark of Empoli’s strategy. Coach Maurizio Sarri is renowned for having no fewer than 33 different ones logged into a notebook. He hates that their success is often reduced to this. “I’m fed up with it,” he says. “There aren’t 33 and besides everyone does them. In pre-season we studied one a day.
And on Saturday we choose four or five.” Valdifiori elaborates further. “We take a lot of care with our set-pieces. We find new solutions based on how our opponents defend. We have to survive. Many games are settled like this, with me taking them and my teammates making the right runs in the penalty area.” Several teams, Samp for instance, have copied Empoli’s trademark indirect free-kick routines. And why wouldn’t they? Ten of their goals, or 37%, have come from set-pieces.
Sunday’s opponents Milan know all about this after conceding from a corner and a neatly screened free-kick scheme in the 2-2 draw at the Castellani back in September. In both instances, Valdifiori was the brains behind them. It’ll be curious to watch him at San Siro this weekend.
Of all the players Milan signed over the winter. Of all the positions they reinforced, it baffled some that they didn’t address the deep-lying playmaker role. Atalanta’s Daniele Baselli is expected to join in the summer but when you consider how Valdifiori gets Empoli playing, how he runs the game for them, wouldn’t he have fit the bill.
Perhaps he doesn’t have the profile for it. He’s 28 and this is his first season in Serie A, a reward for a player who was plying his trade down in the third division before joining Empoli seven years ago. He has been with them ever since, through thick and thin: narrowly avoiding relegation to Serie C1 through a play-off against Vicenza in 2012 and then earning promotion last season.
Italy coach Antonio Conte is an admirer. He tried to sign Valdifiori for Siena three years back but left to take the Juventus job. “Everything fell through.” A call up to the squad for a European Championship qualifier with Bulgaria and friendly with England has been talked about as a possibility. “It fills me with pride,” Valdifiori grins. “Everyone would like to play for the national team. A call up would be enough for me, a shirt. I would be the happiest man in the world.” And just imagine Valdifiori’s reaction to the prospect of training alongside Pirlo. He could retire fulfilled.