Austin Nyquist writes, and demonstrates in detail just what makes Leonardo Bonucci a truly special defender.
“Bonucci…one of my favorite ever players.”
– Pep Guardiola
To hear those words come from the mouth of one of the greatest living coaches and one of the most innovative and abstract thinkers of the game must be flattering. To think that they were not spoken by a fellow teammate or coach, but from an opposition manager must make you start to believe that you may be something quite special. And special…yes, Leonardo Bonucci certainly fits that billing.
His move from Bari to Juventus in 2010 corresponded to the ascendency that is the Juve we now know. Five Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia, three Supercoppa Italiana, and a Champions League Runner Up in his time so far. On an individual level he has been named Serie A Footballer of the Year for the 2015-2016 season as well as a member of the 2016 UEFA Team of the Year. Couple that with the rumors of every major club desperately pleading for his services to the tune of $50…$60…$70 million. And with all of that you have what many consider the modern day embodiment of a defender. A player comfortable in possession, a player willing to pass and dribble forward, a player who organizes and commands, a player who can tackle and anticipate without having to go to ground, a player who can create from the deepest of positions, a warrior through and through.
Preventing the opposition from scoring is the primary function of the defensive unit. As inherent as that is, it is still worth mentioning as there is so much conjecture these days about the elaborate and smooth technical abilities of certain defenders. Yes, that is all fine and good but at its origin, a defender simply must prevent the other team from creating and scoring chances. The ability to tackle or win the ball off the opponent thus becomes a vital byproduct of this successful execution. For Bonucci, his statistics pose an interesting question. Are the best defenders the ones with the highest number of tackles or interceptions or clearances? Because if that was the case, he certainly shouldn’t be lauded in the world class category as he doesn’t even rank in the top ten in the Serie A in any of those three categories. What’s more, he doesn’t rank in the top ten in shots blocked, crosses blocked, or passes blocked either. However, in order to truly appreciate his particular skill set and the performance with which he plays each and every game, one must watch the man and his role in the team. Simply perusing stats sheets will not do him the justice and adulation he rightly deserves. His ability to win the ball without having to slide tackle is a major factor in both his and the team’s ability to transition quickly into an offensive state. Additionally, it allows him to be directly involved in that counter attack with his forward movement not inhibited by being on the ground. The capacity to contain and pick your moment to challenge is a lost art in 1v1 defending. Too many players resort to the glamour tackle or prefer the bullish collision. It takes an understated intelligence and delicacy to be able to win the ball without ever leaving your feet. And this is something Leonardo Bonucci excels at!
If tackling is the entry level job requirement of a capable defender then anticipation is the executive level. This sense is born out of an innate ability to read the game and continuously answer the ever-evolving questions the game is posing. Some have it, some don’t. The best think two, three, four steps ahead. For Bonucci, he is constantly conducting the defensive orchestra that surrounds him. With the marking capabilities of Chiellini and Barzagli to his left and right, the Juventus center back has the freedom to use his intuition to hunt the ball. Although he can still thrive in a back four system, the back three truly allows his merits to fully flourish. With the burden of chasing and tracking lessened, he is able to pick and choose his moments of when to step, drop, or slide. And as such, he provides the perfect platform for Juventus and Italy to move from the defensive third into the attacking third with fluency and precision.
Evading The Press
A player’s ability and comfort level with the ball is a topic of debate throughout the globe. Coaches are constantly asking questions such as: How can we increase touches? How can we develop players who desire the ball and look to use it? How can we improve a player’s ability to use both feet? And so on and so forth the argument continues with every corner of the coaching and playing community chiming in with their own theories. Whether they find agreement or difference in the conclusion, the fact of the matter is that a player with such a skill set is ideal. As we look further up the developmental ladder to the echelons of elite club soccer, players with such attributes become vital to the fulfillment of a team’s performance week in week out.
For Juventus, they have such a player. And no he isn’t their playmaker or striker or shifty winger, he is their center back. To have a defensive player with the capacity to receive and dribble and pass with efficiency and comfort is huge. To have one that can do this while under pressure and with both feet is priceless. It is a complete game changer in the way in which a team can build and play when their deepest field player can also play such an integral part in the advancement and circulation of the ball. What’s more, it allows the structure of the team to remain intact and their movement to be proactive instead of reactive. Bonucci has an incredible knack for evading the first defender and his attempts to stifle the player himself or disturb the build up in general. With this, Juventus and Italy are able to destabilize the defensive efforts of the opposition and force them to account for Bonucci’s ability on the ball. He is not your prototypical center back of years gone by who looks to lump the ball up the field or out of bounds at the slightest hint of pressure. He is intelligent with his play and thoughtful with his every decision.
The Deep Playmaker
The term playmaker seems to be an often used and mostly ambiguous moniker that is somehow attributed to players left right and center or to no one at all. It’s a blessing and a curse. If the attributes come from an unexpected source then it’s a stroke of coaching genius; however, if it does not materialize from someone that it’s expected to, then outrage and misery follow. For Leonardo Bonucci he has transformed the paradigm of what it means to be a playmaker and from which position it can come from. Moreover, his ascendency has followed the global trend the game has been taking for several years now of truly ‘Ball Playing’ center backs. When this capacity is present within a team it can totally change the way in which the structure and strategy can be expressed. Quite simply, a team can become more of an attacking threat sooner in the build up and create new and dangerous passing lines that many teams are not capable of. With all of Bonucci’s quality and all of the aforementioned skills he possesses in abundance, this ability to be a playmaker or ‘Regista’ from the center back position has propelled him to the world class level that many coaches view him in. So many defenders can tackle, challenge, win aerial duels, and even score the occasional goal, but very few can distribute to the level that he can. He averages 7.2 accurate long balls per game and has passed at an 89% success rate over the last 20 games with the addition of 1.5 key passes on average. These numbers speak of creative midfielders or players who control the game each and every week, not of a central defender. Well that is where the Juventus man has changed the discussion. He certainly did not invent the role but he has definitely made it his own and reinvented its particular application at times. His capacity to play accurate passes over short, medium, and long ranges present him as an incredible danger to the opposition and their defensive application.
No Ordinary Goals
A last but certainly not undervalued attribute of Bonucci’s game is his ability to chip in with some pretty important goals. Goals have come in games versus the likes of Sevilla, Roma, Inter, and Napoli to name a few. Likewise, the style and execution of these attempts rivals that of the most experienced of strikers. He goes beyond falling into the category of ‘right place, right time’ as many defenders who get on the score sheet do. Leonardo Bonucci does not seem to score any ordinary goals, but most undoubtedly, he only scores extraordinary ones.
At 29 years old Leonardo Bonucci is flourishing on every level and in every capacity imaginable. He has seen continuous success at both club and national level and has put himself at the forefront of any discussion revolved around the world’s best defender. From this point, it is anyone’s guess to where he will end up next or what twist and turns his career will take. Will he don the black and white of Juventus again next year or will he look for a new challenge in a new country? These are questions that continue to swirl and clubs across the continent continue to clamor for any hope they may have of enticing this incredible talent their way. What remains unquestionable is the player’s contribution and any team lucky enough to have him will surely also have the success that seems to follow him wherever he goes. He is a winner through and through.