Last summer saw Andrea Pirlo leave Serie A, taking his exquisite passing and deadly free kicks to New York City FC. Many wondered who would inherit his title as the King of Set Pieces on the Peninsula, but they would not have to wait long for an answer. Indeed, in just the second game of the 2015-16 campaign, Miralem Pjanic would snatch the crown for himself by delivering a knockout blow to the now Pirlo-less Juventus.
With just over an hour on the clock and as Francesco Totti looked on from the bench, the Bosnian midfielder lined up the ball and prepared to despatch it towards goal. He completely ignored both the goalkeeper and the wall of defenders standing between him and the back of the net, instead focusing on what he needed to do to render them both irrelevant.
“I often practice my free kicks in training in order to improve my accuracy,” he would reveal to La Gazzetta dello Sport later. “I never work on their trajectories though, as those are in my head since I can always work out the distance from goal.” That is exactly what Pjanic did on that late-August evening against the Bianconeri, curling home a magnificent effort, one hit with such precision that even the great Gigi Buffon found himself rooted to the spot.
The Juve Captain will likely be thankful that – thanks to a €32m move to Turin this summer – the pair will now be on the same side rather than staring each other down during further dead ball situations. Indeed, since he arrived on the peninsula back in 2011, only Pirlo (12) has netted more Serie A free kicks than Pjanic (11) with four of his tally coming last season alone, as he becomes an increasingly greater threat.
Yet before he was a master of his craft, he served as an apprentice to perhaps the greatest set piece specialist the game has ever seen. Joining Olympique Lyonnais as a teenager, the new Juve man was fortunate enough to work closely with Juninho Pernambucano, who believes his former pupil is now the best in the business.
“It's difficult to compare him to me, because I don't like talking about myself too much,” the Brazilian told L’Equipe last year. “But Mire has incredible quality. He's maybe the best free-kick taker in the world today. He's very efficient and above all consistent. That's the most difficult part.” He would go on to add that he had told Pjanic that “repetition of the action was the most important thing in order to become a great free-kick taker.” It was a lesson that the younger man has clearly taken to heart.
Watching any compilation of his goals leads to two simple conclusions. Firstly, he has heeded Juninho’s words and his execution rarely differs. Every time, the arc of his run up, the way he plants his left foot and the swing of his magical right boot are almost identical. However, the second thing of note – and something he certainly has worked on by himself since leaving Lyon – is the sheer variety of strikes that follow that textbook delivery.
While Juninho – and indeed Cristiano Ronaldo – always opt for dipping, powerful efforts, Pjanic is also capable of delicately curved trajectories or low, driven shots underneath the wall. His ability to deceive, mislead and misdirect goalkeepers is arguably his greatest asset. They simply have no idea what to expect.
Lost for a way to describe an effort against Empoli last term, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Andrea Pugliese said his delivery was “magical. His right foot is truly a wand, like something from a Harry Potter film.”
But putting aside the platitudes and the silky metaphors, it is accuracy and hard work that truly set Pjanic aside from his rivals. Back in October 2015, it was calculated that since the start of 2013-14, he had scored with 18.4% of the efforts he had taken, almost 3% better than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.
It is a technique he has honed over hours and hours on the training ground, and even his summer move to Juventus has not stopped him from putting in that effort. “These days, we've got a few of us stopping behind to practice,” Paulo Dybala said recently, revealing that he and Pjanic were part of Juve’s “Thursday club” who continue to work on this particular skill.
The prospect of seeing the left-footed Argentinian and his new team-mate preparing to take an effort in a game will likely mean some sleepless nights for goalkeepers across Italy and beyond, but it is undoubtedly Pjanic who continues to reign over his rivals. Long live the King.