For a lot of us, we've known that Leonardo Bonucci is one of the best in the business for a few years now. I mean, he's good, really, really good. And there's nothing that's going to tell us otherwise. Outside of a Serie A-centric mindset, that may not be the case, though. A lot of people may just think of Bonucci as that guy who's been linked to Chelsea in recent months because his former manager at Juventus is about to take over in London.
Boy, they sure did find out what we've been seeing for years on Monday, didn't they? (Side note: Change that, because you're seriously missing out.)
As much as I despise announcers constantly going to the old cliché that "Those Italians sure do know how to defend!" we hear time and time again, it was certainly the case in the Azzurri's 2-0 win over Belgium to open their Euro 2016 campaign. It was, for all intents and purposes, a classic Italy kind of game — defend like a bunch of madmen, hitting the opponent when counterattacks were available. Oh, and it was Bonucci who was doing a lot of those defensive plays.
Ah, but the beauty of Bonucci's game means it's not just on the defensive end where he gets things done. Let's just go ahead and look back at who was on the backend of Italy's first goal against Belgium...
I mean, seriously, most central defenders in the game today just don't do that. That's Andrea Pirlo-level precision from a guy who is also one hell of a defender. Yet, with Bonucci, it's nothing new to us Juventus followers. For us, it's just a regular thing. "Oh my god! A centerback launching 50-yard passes into the final third to a teammate!" isn't something you will see a Juventus fan post on Twitter or say in person whenever Bonucci drops a dime like he did to Emanuele Giaccherini in the first half.
(It certainly did merit a tweet from Twitter newbie and Juventus teammate Sam Khedira. Game recognize game, folks.)
Bonucci's numbers against Belgium represent just how involved he truly was. He led Italy in both interceptions (4) and clearances (7). Just for added measure, Bonucci was also one of five Italy starters to complete over 79 percent of the passes that they attempted. It was just about as all-around of a performance for a defender without getting a goal as he could have had.
But, the unfortunate thing is that not everybody is as familiar with just how wide-ranging Bonucci's game as we are.
Well, they are now.
Monday night was Bonucci's night. He defended with the best of them, he seemingly served as Italy's deep-deep-deep-lying playmaker with both Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti missing the Euros due to injury. And for a player who has developed into one of the best defenders in the world yet is still criminally underrated, it served as a coming out party in a way. Bonucci turned 29 years old last month, so it's not like this is his first major international tournament. But still, when it comes to the scope and within the landscape of European football, Bonucci doesn't get the kind of recognition he deserves. We know it because we see it week-in and week-out, but others who just drop in on Serie A here and there or see an Italy game every couple of months might not recognize it.
Or, in short, this game just showed how far Bonucci has come in his time in Turin.
What did we seem to say at least a couple times a season when Bonucci first came to Juventus? There were big-game atmospheres that shook him up a little bit. There's no denying it. He would, like a lot of other young players, get a little rattled if things weren't going as he hoped. Those days, however, are long gone. Now, as he becomes even that much more important for both club and country as the months go by, Bonucci is rising to the occasion and playing the best ball of his already pretty accomplished career.
And in a game where it was seemingly billed here in the United States as Belgium's offensive talent vs. Italy's veteran defense, it was certainly the latter that won that battle. And it was Bonucci leading the charge like he has done so many times before.