Juventus 2013-14 Season In Review: The Central defenders

Claudio Villa

Angelo Ogbonna - 7

When Juve's interest in Ogbonna first surfaced in late 2012, I was in two minds. The major thoughts were positive and focused upon my opinion — shared by many others — that he was one of the best up-and-coming defenders in Serie A. Strong in the challenge, capable in the air and a good reader of the flow of a game, yet more importantly, he could pass. A worthy potential addition to the ranks, but surely he was not yet strong enough to depose any of our commanding rear-guard triumvirate.

Alongside this voyage around my vodka addled synapses was a nagging squeal in the shadows, which sounded something like 'Sorensen.' The young Dane has impressed mightily when thrust into the limelight under the charge of the ill-fated Gigi Delneri. Far from overawed by any occasion, the Iceman acquitted himself so very well indeed that I have since harbored steady eagerness to see him return to the ranks.

I reasoned when Juve finally did sign Ogbonna, that it was a chance lost for the Dane and concluded that the €13 million invested was for the future, not present. For of all the players to succumb to rotation, the CBs are the least affected. Only injury or suspension could give Angelo the chance to shine and truly make his mark. And there was also a certain Martin Cáceres to consider.

As expected, the defender was used sparingly throughout the season, generally deputizing for Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci where his natural talents fit with the most ease into our tactical system. Sixteen starts in all competitions gave us only a blinkered view of what he could bring to the team, for he was never given the chance to truly bed into the starting line-up. And with this in mind, I see his first campaign in our colors as one of moderate success.

There were no shocking performances, just a couple of outings where he seemed out of synch with his comrades. His efforts were solid. His passing measured and accomplished and he proved a worthy back-up to the established players in the team.

Composure and stability are welcome in any back-line and what more could we expect of Ogbonna without the chance to play a lengthy number of consecutive games and build his match sharpness. A defender should be judged first and foremost on his ability to defend, and on that measure, the newcomer to the ranks was satisfactory. At times he gave me the impression that his major aim was to avoid any glaring errors. Keep it simple. Keep the ball moving and win the challenges. We are used to decent pace in Chiellini's position, for the big fella can certainly gallop. Perhaps it would be fair to say that Ogbonna brings more class on the ball to the role, but I cannot see him challenging for a starting spot yet in either the left CB or libero position. He has more accomplished concentration than Bonucci, yet his passing range has yet to show itself as more than sensible and trustworthy, with the libero position demanding more.

His solely defensive stats for the season need explaining. Whilst he ranks lower than those in front of him in the pecking order for tackles and interceptions made per game, this can be explained partly by his marking ability and reading of the game. Through use of intelligent positioning he does not need to make as many tackles as players who take longer to sense trouble. This is a very important skill for any player, especially so for a defender. His pace also adds value to the sharp footballing brain, for his legs allow him to reach the optimum area of the pitch more swiftly than others in the back-line.

Whilst at Torino, Ogbonna demonstrated value in a flat back four as well as a similar 3-5-2 to what has come to be our mainstay on the formation board. At the very least, we now have a strong alternative to Chiellini and a player whose passing accuracy is always useful. Twenty-six years old is young for a center back and the assumption must be that he can still develop further. In what capacity, it is tricky to tell, for he appears to have no major weaknesses, going about his business with tidiness and steely determination.

Given the top drawer quality of the players around him and our prospective change to a 4 man back line, it is tough to determine whether his opportunities to impress will improve or lessen. We must assume that if two spots are available for the centre-backs the ideal starters will be Chiellini and Barzagli, both vastly more experienced and more developed players. In fact the more I think of those two at the back, alongside Lichsteiner and a classy LB, the more excited I become. This would leave Ogbonna as the natural back-up to Chiellini, and Bonucci...potentially vying with Caceres for the back-up role to Barzagli. Unless the former Torino man is given a roll of the dice in the left fullback position.

Leonardo Bonucci - 7

Some say that we make our own luck, but does it therefore follow that we also make our own misfortune? There is sense to the adage from both ends of the spectrum...

Big Leo has often been criticized for his inopportune lapses in concentration as well as succumbing to the odd own goal. He has improved dramatically over these last three seasons. His tackling and positioning especially seem to have progressed to a top drawer level. He has been tasked with engaging a gruelling path of metamorphosis from Bonucci to Sammer.

By and large, Bonucci has done well. Yet that old habit of day-dreaming when an opponent is within range and sniffing out an opportunity with his enemy snout simply refuses to die.

Conte deploys him in a libero role. Yet Big Leo is equipped to fight, to battle, to throw himself in front of danger. Asked to provide creative endeavour from the back, he is not naturally blessed with dribbling talent or flair. He does his best, which is all we can ask. However, it must be said that he is ill-suited to the role we ask of him, and it shows when we face quality opposition.

Bonucci is a player who I like to use as an example to validate my lack of value in the WhoScored statistics. We can see his high amount of tackles, interceptions, passes and clearances per game. However, until there is a measure for 'mistakes that led to a clear cut opportunity or goal for the opposition.' I am hesitant at making any assertions based solely or largely upon those stats. I prefer to use what my eyes and the mind attached to them register. And with this measure, I see Bonucci as a better player than when we signed him, but still plagued by those momentary lapses of unerring focus which can prove the difference between success and failure for the team as a whole.

I would like to see how he fares in a back four. I must state, however, that I have seen enough of his libero impersonations to conclude that he is not meant for the role. Which is not intended to cast aspersions on his all round defensive ability, moreover, it is to suggest that we ask too much of him.

The role he occupies in Antonio Conte's system and starting lineup is to create the play from the back. Others tasked with a comparable responsibility are expected merely to find the nearest player, whereas Big Leo must take the ball forward and look for runners in the final third. As well as perform the duties of sweeper, mop up at the back, cut out forward foraging of The Enemy.

I see no need to delve into his numbers for the season. Suffice to say, Bonucci has played whenever fit, tackled hard and effectively, yet his lack of constant focus remains a problem and if this season has proven anything, it is that there is no place at the top level for a three man defence employing a muscle-man stopper as a libero.

As for his future...

We are all assuming that there will be a move to a rearguard back four. Which implies Chiellini and Barzagli as our starters in the center back role. It is possible that given the chance, and tasked with solely defensive duties, Big Leo could prosper. However, given the lack of opportunities afforded to Caceres, and his deployment focused in the CB area, this would put us in a situation where Bonucci is battling for the deputy Barzagli role against the Uruguayan.

To return to my adage focus...two is company, three is a crowd. If Conte considers Cáceres as a viable option as a fullback on either flank, then Big Leo is decent enough for the center back challenge. If not, one of the two must surely depart.

Giorgio Chiellini - 8

At 29 years of age, Giorgio is reaching his prime as a center back. His season was one of the kind of solidity and strength we have become accustomed to over the years during which we have been blessed with his presence in our colours.

Whilst he may not have the ball control of David Luiz, or the composure and inert leadership abilities of Luisao, when it comes to his ability as a stopper, there are few in the game near his level let alone superior. It is fair to say that of the three mainstays at the back, Chiellini has been forced to work the hardest in order to accommodate Conte's passing game. Intelligent, adventurous distribution does not come naturally to the towering rearguard stalwart.

Reliable, offering good pace, brilliant in the tackle. Nothing new there for any seasoned Juventino. The only issues to be found with Chiellini - and these are far outweighed by his magnificent defensive output - are two fold.

Firstly, his tendency to grapple in the area at set pieces is cause for concern as we aim to venture deeper into European competition. He often treads a gossamer thin line between conceding a penalty and persuading the referee that wrapping his arms around an opponent or tugging on his shirt is merely six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The second area which must be mentioned is his work in the final third. He is capable of making his presence felt at offensive set pieces through his height and immense physicality. However, whenever I see him drive forward with the ball at his feet he shows the composure of a hippo.

These are small matters. The former can be improved somewhat, the latter is dead on the vine. A return to a back four will bring out the best in Chiellini, allowing him to concentrate on what he does consistently at a world class level; defending.

Andrea Barzagli - 8

Andrea has been the most important cog in our defensive chain over the last three seasons. His timing, composure and intelligence time and time again cause opponents to be shut out from the first till the last whistle.

His importance to the squad was conspicuous through his absence due to injury in early February. For several games during Andrea's stint in the treatment room, our defense succumbed to uncomfortable moments of disarray. The match against Verona is testament to my conclusion that Barzagli is our key player at the back. We could not simply stick in his place a rusty Cáceres, who was in dire need of match sharpness, and expect to maintain our strength at the back.

The difference he makes during those rare times when we are put under concerted pressure is enormous, for his feathers are incredibly hard to ruffle. With Big Leo prone to momentary lapses in concentration and Chiellini often bombing forward with scant control of the ball and liable to gift possession to the opposition at any moment, Barzagli is the much needed calming presence across the back-line. It is rare to see him startled or found in a situation where an opponent is out of reach of his sharp mind and capable lower paws.

When fit, and his fitness will become an issue as he continues to age (he is now 33), he is invariably excellent. One of the most important, yet least lauded signings of our beautiful triple Scudetto winning run.

I would like to see us purchase a player of a similar mould. Both Masi and Rugani are apparently well equipped with a similar calmness, both on and off the ball, yet neither will likely be given the chance at Juve until they have been blooded elsewhere in the top flight (much to the chagrin of the BWRAO version of Marotta!).

The more natural leaders a team has in their ranks the better, and whilst Chiellini is a pure warrior who will fight fang and claw to the death, winning the war 9.99999 times out of 10, it is Barzagli who I see as the defensive leader.

Martin Cáceres - 7

There was one positive alone to take from the injury suffered by Barzagli in February. And that was the moderately lengthy first team opportunity afforded to Cáceres. The Uruguayan has long been a fan's favorite due to his passion, latin locks and energy, yet has found it impossible to stake a claim for a starting berth given the fine injury-free form of our first choice centre-backs.

Finally given the chance to play regularly, and gather match sharpness, we began to see what Martin could offer. His positional sense and aerial ability remain awkward at times, but his ability to mark and tackle with precision gets better by the game.

To call the latter part of the season a breakthrough period seems odd, yet it was his first chance for many moons to find his rhythm and show us what he is made off. Clearly he has grinta in abundance, but I am not convinced that we are getting the best out of his talents by using him as a centre-back.

In the past I have seen him perform brilliantly (for us) as a right fullback. For his country he is a regular left fullback. He likes to venture forward, has great pace and high stamina. Our prospective change to a rear four seems to restrict his chances at starting in the middle, yet at the same time increase the chances of his involvement as a fullback, which is where I feel he could truly prosper.

Conclusion

Apologies for the repetition as I have more than touched upon the following in snippets earlier on in this mammoth appraisal of our central defenders, but I cannot leave this report alone until I have broached the future of the players under my gaze.

Given our interest in wide attacking talent it seems right to assume that the evolution of our tactical system is set to step up a gear. I have long been critical of our usage of a formation which has as its pivot at the back a third centre-back. Which in our case is generally Bonucci.

We are hard pressed to find an elite team operating in Europe which deploys a similar formation. Admittedly our 3-5-2 morphs during the course of a game into 3-3-4 and 3-4-3. However, the rear-guard fulcrum remains the same. Bonucci is tasked with a mixture of libero and sweeper duties. He is expected to step out of defense and look for long passes. Essentially move from CB to regista. This is not at all his natural game.

The system leaves us very strong defensively but lacking a player further up the field whose talents shine with the ball at his feet. It is not mere co-incidence that very few top teams adopt a similar system. For the vast majority of our rivals for a place at the royal table employ a back four for good reason, namely the extra man found further up the field.

Big Leo is not a libero. He is a stopper. He cannot weave his way forward like Beckenbauer, nor drive forward with dynamism like Sammer. The libero role seems defunct in the modern game at the highest level, which is where we seek to find ourselves.

Conte sacrifices an offensive player for a defensive player every-time he opts for the 3-5-2. Our troubles seem focused on scoring goals, not conceding goals. Adding a player potent in the final third for a player highly capable in the defensive third may make us more vulnerable defensively, yet also adds hugely to our offensive options and ability to break down tough opponents. The more players comfortable on the ball and able to do something clever with the ball, the greater our chances of breaking down troublesome opponents.

If we do move to a flat back four, it leaves two CB places. Chiellini and Barzagli appear the first choice. With Ogbonna an able deputy at LCB and Bonucci the same for the RCB role.

It is always ideal to have two quality players challenging for each role. Which leaves Cáceres, who is a very solid candidate for a left flank fullback role. Both Chiellini and Ogbonna can also play there, with the former Torino man more aptly suited. With quality higher up the field on the left flank, we need not purchase as a necessity a specialist left fullback when we have options within our current squad. Kwadwo Asamoah can also perform competently as a left fullback.

Cáceres has shown in the past that he is comfortable on the right flank, which potentially means we can dispense with Isla or sample his deployment as a right winger. Perhaps his ship has already sailed at Juve...

Suffice to say, I feel we can move to a flat back four without forking out millions of EUROS for new players.

The only facets we lack in our defensive department are leadership and composure. Which none of the present offering has in spades other than Barzagli. Perhaps this is the spark for the rumour fires regarding Paletta??

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