As Juventus celebrated their 3-0 aggregate victory in the Champions League second round against FC Porto, the result will have been extra satisfactory for one individual more than most. Leonardo Bonucci was excellent against the Portuguese side, recovering well from his very public argument with manager Max Allegri last month which saw him be dropped for the first leg tie in Portugal. Though Juventus ran out winners on that occasion, Bonucci will have certainly been disappointed to miss out.
At the time, it was a brave move by Allegri. Had Juve gone to Portugal and crumbled under the intimidating Estadio do Dragao atmosphere, critics would have pointed to the absent leadership that the experienced Bonucci could have provided. Instead, a moment of madness from Alex Telles and two quick-fire goals from Dani Alves and Marko Pjaca sealed a comfortable win for the Turin side. It would have been easy for Bonucci to sulk and kick up a fuss after his exclusion from the squad for such a crucial match but instead the defender went about things a different way.
Ever since he was dropped, Bonucci has been consistently good. He was solid in home wins over Empoli and AC Milan while knocking in a second-half equalizer against Udinese to help extend the club’s lead at the top of the table to eight points. Tuesday night’s performance, however, has arguably been his best in that time span.
The lack of urgency for Juve to attack their opponent due to their comfortable lead was evident, and meant Bonucci had more responsibility to break down Porto’s defence. His ball-playing skill as a defender is one of the best in the world, and adds another element to Allegri’s offense. With Miralem Pjanic dropped in favour of the more deep-minded, possession-oriented Claudio Marchisio, Allegri’s intentions were clear. If Porto were going to make this tie interesting, it wasn’t going to be due to a tactical mishap from the Juve manager.
Marchisio and Sami Khedira were instructed to stay mostly around the centre of the pitch, to limit Porto’s counter-attacking opportunities as shown here with whoscored.com's heatmap.
Allegri wanted to keep it tight and compact, but also needed a player who could drop high balls into Porto’s half and cause them problems. Bonucci was only too happy to oblige. His heat map shows how at times he played like a third central midfielder, providing Juve with an extra man in that area of the pitch as well as giving service into the forward line. His long-range passing ability from such a position ensures there’s no open spaces in defense, as a result of the extra offensive weapon. It’s a win-win, especially in a match where the main objective is to not concede.
It’s a good example why this type of a defender is in-demand now. It’s a trendy addition to a team to have a centre-back who can also operate as a deep-lying playmaker at times. There are of course risks associated with this type of tactic. Just remember the 3-1 defeat to Genoa earlier on in the year, when Bonucci was constantly caught out in possession. When teams press high, there’s always the chance the defender will get disposed and suddenly the keeper is facing a one-on-one situation. But Allegri trusts Bonucci to get the job done. His performance will have shown his manager just how important he is to the side in these tight and tense European matches. He may not have been needed in Portugal last month, but last night will have reinforced his value to the team.
Another element of Bonucci’s offensive abilities is just how accurate his passes are. Per whoscored.com, the 29-year-old completed 102 from 108 attempts. That’s an astonishing number for any player to have, with just six misplaced passes. It’s another reason why he can be trusted with the ball at his feet. For the season, overall, he stands as the most able long-ball passer in the side with an average of 7.1 attempts per game. His sublime looping cross-field pass to Mario Manduzkic before the half was just an example of the defender’s passing arsenal. That Porto refused to instill a high-press only played into Juve’s hands further, allowing Bonucci the time and space to pick out his target.
Defensively, it was a quite enough night for Juve. Porto threatened a couple of times in the second half, once due to Medhi Benatia’s sloppy play. But overall the two-legged affair was comfortable for Allegri and Co. Tougher tasks await in the quarterfinals where European giants Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich potentially await the Italian champions and Bonucci’s role in these fixtures will be vital. His emotions may sometimes cross those of his manager’s but there’s no doubting Juventus need him on the pitch, and not in the stands.