The Maze, the Minotaur and the Midfielder
Fig. 1, Theseus in the Milan Midfield
Finding a way through an aggressive or densely packed defense is an eternal human struggle. Some heroes do it better than others.
By Bob Bjarke
Dec 24, 2021
According to ancient Greek legend, a half-man, half-bull creature called the Minotaur murderously devoured the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens from a rival kingdom every seven years. The Minotaur resided in an enormous maze built by the brilliant craftsman Daedalus designed to trap and confuse his victims while they tried to reach an opening in the maze and escape. But escape proved to be impossible, and I wonder, as I’m sure you do, too, what trying to escape this maze felt like to the youths and maidens looking for a way to break out. Was it like the suffocating pressure of a Klopp-esque German gegenpress--relentless and inescapable? Or was it more like the tedious and Sisyphean task of trying to chip away at a Mourinho-style bus parking, making pass after pass fully knowing you're more likely to find yourself conceding a counter-attack goal than finding your own breakthrough?
What do you need to defeat a murderous Minotaur and the maze that surrounds him? As is the case in many Greek myths, you need a hero and you need a plan.
In any event, what do you need to defeat a murderous Minotaur and the maze that surrounds him? As is the case in many Greek myths, you need a hero and you need a plan. In the story of the Minotaur, a young hero named Theseus came over to Crete in the winter transfer window to put an end to the Minotaur's reign of destruction. With the help of a local youth academy member named Ariadne, Theseus snuck into the maze with a sword and a ball of yarn. Theseus used this yarn to make a map of the maze, by dragging it behind him as he made his way through. If he ever ran into a dead end, he could simply follow his yarn back and find another way through. Upon reaching the end of the maze, he surprised the Minotaur and slew it with his sword. Getting through the maze was the tough part, defeating the Minotaur just required some good swordsmanship.
In the present day as we scour the globe for legendary non-goals, courageous teams of youths and maidens fail to escape the mazes constructed by tactical engineers like Klopp or Simeone, and are devoured by Minotaurs like Van Dijk and Sergio Ramos. Where is our hero, who is our Theseus, and what's the plan--the ball of yarn used to unwind the defensive maze set before him?
There are lots of potential candidates for the role of legendary maze-breaker Theseus: the wily and perpetual motion of Bernardo Silva; the one-touch mastery of Busquets; even the long-range air assault of the Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson are options to find a way through a deviously devised maze.
But we'll cast our mind back to a more recent legend of Mediterranean lands: Andrea Pirlo. Seemingly blessed with few to no physical gifts--not speedy like contemporary Italian midfielder Barella, nor with the lanky, octopusian reach of Busquets--Pirlo was able to set course through a variety of mazes throughout his career, roaming stadiums in the north of Italy with an air maybe more appropriate for a game of bacci than the soccer field. But underneath this mild-mannered exterior lie a master maze-breaker. Pirlo's ability to break through defenses with just one or two passes was sublime, and his vision to begin or re-start an attack from deep in his own half was second-to-none. He seemed to always have his ball of yarn at the ready, and when his team might find itself at a dead end, he'd be there to wind up the yarn, bring them back to the starting point and find another way through--always as cool as the captain of a yacht on calm Mediterranean waters. This was our hero's plan: to never panic, to never give in to the pressure of a mythical monster on his tail, and to always be ready to follow the yarn back to the beginning and start again. Until finally, as if by luck or by magic, his team found itself in front of the goal, maze broken, ready to slay the unsuspecting Minotaur with the easiest of tap-ins.
Fig. 2, The maze and the Minotaur
In this insanely detailed video below (complete with appropriate renaissance man soundtrack) you'll see a detailed breakdown of Pirlo's maze-master vision and execution. You'll see him looking for ways through, around, and over the maze. He's constantly following the yarn to pull the team forward or back--whatever is necessary to get his team into open passages.
The most beautiful part of this video is that very few of Pirlo's efforts actually lead to goals. This is why watching Pirlo play was so intensely rewarding. At any moment, he'd provide a variety of non-goals, from a defense-splitting pass into the 18-yard box, to an attack-switching pivot pass from a dead end to an open passage, to a sly, not-at-all-fast-but-incredibly-effective body fake to throw a defender off balance.
In Theseus' day, he was adored by Athenians for being almost the antithesis to fellow legend Heracles. Known for his incredible strength and determination, Heracles was the superhero of superheroes, able to overcome any obstacle by sheer power. Theseus on the other hand was as crafty and resourceful as he was strong. As historian Edith Hamilton puts it, Theseus was "a man of great intellect as well as great bodily strength. It was natural that the Athenians should have such a hero, because they valued thought and ideas, as no other part of the country did." Born just a thousand miles from the Athenian home of Theseus, the small, not particularly fast or strong Andrea Pirlo has become the non-goal creating heir to the ancient Greek hero.