€15million sounded a lot. When Juventus announced the signing of Leonardo Bonucci from Genoa in the summer of 2009 it looked like they had, despite the arrival of a new and supposedly more astute management team, once again overspent on a player. His early showings in the Bianconeri shirt did little to appease those fears among supporters who had seen defenders such as Jorge Andrade, Jean-Alain Boumsong and the disastrous return of an aging Fabio Cannavaro all flop in recent years.
The perception was that once again the club had failed to find a solid addition for the back-line and brought in yet another player unfit to follow in the footsteps of names as illustrious as Gaetano Scirea, Ciro Ferrara and Lillian Thuram. There were even those who believed Beppe Marotta had signed the wrong member of a relatively successful Bari side, instead lamenting that Andrea Ranocchia wasn’t the one brought to Turin.
With Bari he always appeared to be the lesser of the pair, despite being the one with links to a bigger club. Cut loose by Inter as part of the deal that brought Thiago Motta and Diego Milito to the Giuseppe Meazza, he began to attract attention as he helped the Southern club improve upon Antonio Conte’s excellent promotion the season before. Giampiero Ventura – the mentor of the current Juve boss – steered the club to a surprising tenth place finish in 2009-10.
The two players had formed an impressive duo at the heart of the Galletti defence once Bonucci had been brought in on loan by the Stadio San Nicola club. Ranocchia had arrived a year earlier and both were part owned by Genoa, but the current Inter man was far more widely recognised. He was the one who had been capped by Italy’s youth sides, playing alongside Mimmo Criscito, Paolo De Ceglie and Sebastian Giovinco at the Under-21 European Championships in 2009 while Bonucci never won a cap at any youth level.
It was Bonucci who Marotta chose to bring to Turin however, making countless mistakes and costing a number of points in his debut season. Yet to some – largely those who remembered the early days of some truly great defenders – there were, even in hose mistake laden early days, signs that Bonucci could one day become one himself.
He clearly had, to those who took time to look closely enough, all the tools necessary to succeed. Physically, he was – as the unfortunate soul who tried to steal his watch last year would discover – he was already an imposing figure. Standing 6’3 (1.9m) and strong enough to be able to battle with strikers like Edinson Cavani, he also has the foot speed to compete with the quicker attacking players.
One problem Bonucci and other defenders must always overcome is the intricacies of a new system and, thanks first to Gigi Delneri and then Antonio Conte, he has been blessed in Turin to have had coaches who pay attention to every detail. New to playing in a three man back-line, he has adapted well to a set up previously unknown to him. Here too there are small points that a player must learn; his position on the field and those of his team-mates, when to move and where to as well as who is responsible for which opposition player.
Looking at the 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk as an example, we can see some elements of the Bianconeri defence in action across three snapshots of action:
While it looks effortless, this is the result of hours of hard work on the training ground from all involved and the understanding between the players on the pitch is a huge factor in Bonucci’s perceived improvement. Individually he is doing very little different to how he played two years ago but, thanks to the improvements to the squad, the quality is so much better. No longer is he worried what horror show display Marco Motta will subject him to or how far he must run to cover Armand Traore. Every player is responsible for his own role and is capable of doing so at the highest level.
Continuing to focus solely on his defensive ability, it is interesting to note that he trails many of his teammates in a number of categories. Chiellini (3.1) and Barzagli (2.3) make more tackles than his 1.7 per game which is just the eighth highest for the club as a whole. Barzagli also has more interceptions (78 to his 55) and both players top his averages of five clearances and 1.1 aerial duels won per game.
However, if we attribute those numbers to his role as the spare man in the centre of the back line, then other stats continue to highlight that fact. Often with no player to mark, Bonucci’s 13 blocked shots are testament to his anticipation and are five more than any other squad member. He also leads the way in terms of offsides won (15), showing his vital role in communication and instructing the others on when to step up to catch out opponents.
It is that same free role which also brings us to perhaps the biggest issue many had with Bonucci from day one; his passing. Again, stemming from his position in the middle of the defence, he is often given time on the ball rarely afforded to defenders and he utilises that space regularly. Berated for wasting the ball in his first season with Juventus, he has steadily improved his passing in each season since. More than any other criticism, it was perhaps his love of the long ball from the back which drew the most complaints . Here too he has made huge strides forward, making more attempts but completing far more, raising his completion rate from 50.4% in 2010-11 to 76.3% in the current campaign.
His 212 completed long passes this term is only bettered by four players across Europe’s top five leagues, one of which is teammate Andrea Pirlo. Bonucci has often taken on the burden of the Bearded Genuis’ volume of passing in games where the iconic midfielder is well marked, making more passes than him in some key games this season. That those games – such as in the 2-0 home win over Napoli – saw special praise heaped on the effort to nullify Pirlo, give further weight to the opinion he has become a key figure in Juve’s style of play.The pattern of that Napoli game was strangely repeated the next time the two teams met, a 1-1 draw at the Stadio San Paolo earlier this month. Bonucci again out passed Pirlo (55 to 47), with the latter harried and pressed superbly by Marek Hamsik and split the Partenopei open on countless occasions with his accurate passing ability. With an 87% completion rate on those passes, this was a match where Bonucci became almost the focal point of the attack, as can be clearly seen in the graphic. This also shows the range of his passing, spreading the play in a manner which fans cannot help but appreciate now the player has established himself as a dependable pillar of the title winning side.
Here is another aspect of Bonucci which has changed dramatically during the past two years. Initially loathed (yes, even by me) for his constant interviews and posts on his personal website, the player has learned how to win over the fans, the majority of whom are now firmly in his corner. Gone are the empty interviews in which he professes to working hard to eradicate mistakes and, instead, we read stories of single handedly dispatching armed robbers who threaten his family or preventing Mario Balotelli getting himself in trouble by gagging the outspoken striker.
Often central in leading the team to celebrate wins under the stands, Bonucci cemented his place in supporters hearts when suspended for the visit of Fiorentina back in February. Rather than wear a suit and sit behind the bench, he took a seat with the Ultra on the Curva Scirea, with clips of him wildly cheering the side’s two goals and joining in with chants earning him huge admiration among fans as they spread across the internet.
With the Juventus defence regularly swapping Bianconeri for the Azzurri of Italy, Bonucci is becoming central to both club and country as he earns the respect of a wider audience. Still only 25, he is earning a reputation as one of the finest defenders in the league and, in a world of ever increasing transfer fees, suddenly that initial €15 million outlay does not seem too much.
The difference is the number of people who can see it.