When he plays for Defensor, Franco Pizzichillo usually operates close to the penalty area – facing the goal, ready to shoot or put the ball on a plate for a team-mate to score.
He has been operating in the same spot in the Uruguay team that will face Nigeria in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013. But there is one important difference: he has also been performing a more defensive role, sharing responsibility for breaking up opposition attacks.
If may sound contradictory, but for the youngster it does not present a problem. He is simply ready to help Uruguay in whichever way coach Fabian Coito asks. “The coach says my primary role is to defend. After that, I can think about giving the ball to the attacking midfielders or the forwards,” the versatile midfield man told FIFA.com. “Luckily, it’s gone pretty well so far.”
In fact it has very little to do with luck. In the U-17 World Cup Pizzichillo wears the No8 shirt, and it has turned out to be the perfect choice, midway between the 5 of a defensive midfielder and the 10 of a playmaker, or enganche. Shirt numbers, after all, are often more about tradition than tactics in Latin America.
His team-mate Leandro Otormin agrees. “Franco is a great defensive midfielder, but he’s also effective when he plays further forward, where he can create things. It’s all down to the way he plays, and his passing ability. He helps control the ball in the middle, and really makes a difference when we’re going forward,” said the attacking midfielder.
It might have been too much to ask of a 17-year-old. But Pizzichillo, comfortable when passing the ball quickly, makes it look easy. With his calm, almost innocent approach, he takes everything in his stride – whether playing for the national team, or when answering question after question in an interview. Nothing he does feels like a sacrifice or a struggle: with or without the ball, it just seems like the most simple, sensible thing to do.
Coito has been making the most of such a find. He has generally used the midfielder in a more withdrawn role, as a link between the central defenders and his dangerous four-man front line. In the closing game of the group stage against Italy, however, he radically changed his formation, removing two attackers and pushing his number 8 further forward.
Four games, 360 minutes
To have a player of this quality in a defensive position is testament to the talent that Uruguay have displayed in their four games in Ras Al Khaimah. Pizzichillo is a very different type of defensive midfielder than those that Oscar Tabarez has selected for the senior squad in recent years – veterans such as Arevalo Rios, Diego Lopez, and Walter Gargano, among others, all of whom are much more defensive players.
It was one way to find space for such a talented player in a team that is more attacking than Uruguayan sides often are. “The characteristics of an Uruguay team never change,” said the midfielder. “But here we have a really powerful front line, and we’re scoring lots of goals.”
The Defensor player scored in the opening-day victory over New Zealand, and won a penalty in the Round of 16 match against Slovakia. It's a bonus for a team to get such production from a defensive position. “He’s a key player because of all he brings to the team,” says Kevin Mendez. “He’s really strong and fit, and he can play in any position, which is so valuable to the team.”
It certainly is. So much so that Pizzichillo is the only player other than the defenders who has been on the pitch for every minute of the four games his side has played in the competition so far. “The coach has given me all the confidence in the world,” he said. No great surprise there. After all, what manager could resist using such a player, who can both defend and attack, as much as possible?