I won’t lie, guys. It’s been a silent week or two for me. The loss and performance in the game-that-shall-not-be-spoken-of hurt me more than words will ever be able to express. Thankfully, with the benefit of some time and hindsight, I think I’ve reached the “acceptance” stage of my grief, and hence, its time to spare some thoughts backwards, before we begin to look forward to the bright future ahead. Juventus have a very competent management in charge, and while we’ve been crippled by key players leaving for two successive summers, we once again found ourselves 90 minutes away from the famed treble. That is no mean achievement, and must be celebrated for what it is, with the dose of reality that came with it.
The 2016-17 season was an extremely interesting one. Juve started the year off looking somewhat bland and uninspired, but regained their professional and efficient ability of getting the job done, before the shackles were undone come the turn of the year, following a meek performance in a loss to Fiorentina. We ascended from strength to strength thereafter, and it was an exceptional season. Whatever the result of the Champions League final might’ve been, everyone was in agreement that it was the two best teams in Europe for this season who contested that final. If 2015’s run announced the arrival at the 100 Euro Table in Europe again, the 2017 run reaffirmed that Juventus are indeed here to stay.
So, without further ado, continuing our look back at the ups and downs of the season that has passed us by, here are my ratings for Juventus’ center backs...
Medhi Benatia — 6
Truth be told, I’ve been quite torn with regards to the former winner of the Serie A Defender of the Year award and his debut season in Turin. Without a doubt, he has a tonne of quality. He had a strong start to the season, and he proved to be a valuable piece while we still played the three man backline. While lacking the passing range of a Leonardo Bonucci, he proved to be Big Leo’s closest rival in the CB section of the squad when it comes to poise on the ball and ball control. He also possesses a physical and aerial dominance that made us an even more dominant side when it came to defending crosses.
That said, a series of factors including niggling injuries, AFCON, and, in particular, the swap to a four-man backline rendered his second half of the season somewhat...mediocre, in my opinion. He only really got to play alongside Bonucci, and, for whatever reason, the chemistry between then just never seemed to be there. While any two man combination between Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani seems to ooze instant chemistry and a telepathic understanding, the Bonucci-Benatia tandem just never clicked for me. It was telling that we rarely kept a clean sheet while those two started together. As such, it becomes a little hard to judge Benatia’s season. A few notable errors aside, he wasn’t terrible, but honestly, I can’t say I was particularly impressed by him at any time in 2017, either. I also thought his presence consistently kept Rugani — who had done more than enough this season to warrant starting ahead of him — out of the starting lineup.
That said, he’s a defender of proven quality whose peak could well be in front of him, and considering the age of our defense, this could prove important. Here’s hoping he has a solid preseason, and can find a more steady role in the squad next season.
Andrea Barzagli — 6.5
Honest opinion: I didn’t think Barzagli had a great year. Especially when compared to the lofty heights The Wall has set for himself in his 6 1/2 years here. He looked solid enough to start the season, but he’s another player who I thought had a somewhat mediocre second half of the season, as compared to the rest of the squad, who hit peak form in that time. Father Time has finally caught up it seems, as on multiple occasions through the past few months, I felt like his body was just not capable of keeping up with the elegant and all powerful footballing brain with which he reads the game. Getting converted into a pseudo right back in a shifting 4-2-3-1/3-4-3 formation certainly didn’t help. Much has been said over the past many years of Bonucci’s “supposed” weakness in a back four, but this year it was Barzagli whom I thought looked most uncomfortable when playing as part of a center back duo.
I also think the decision to shift away from the 4-2-3-1 that proved to be so successful for us in 2017 played a role in our less than stellar May (and June 3), and also seemed to rob Juan Cuadrado of any and all form, momentum and confidence he had gathered. As much as I hate to think so, I can’t help but feel that the dressing room influence and romantic ideal of our famed BBC defense getting the job done and winning us the treble had some role to play in this. That said, one can’t particularly blame Barzagli for that.
At first thought, it seemed to me as though Barzagli did indeed have a quieter year as he served more as a rotation piece than as a starter. On further inspection, however, Barzagli still played a pretty huge 2,244 minutes in Serie A and the Champions League alone (whoscored does not display Coppa Italia stats for some reason), and this worries me a little. Much has been said about how we will be phasing the likes of Barzagli out as he reaches the twilight of his career, yet despite investment in quality players like Rugani and Benatia, Barzagli’s numbers still dwarf theirs. Infer from this what you will, but this does worry me. I spoke once of my opinion that the BBC defense is starting to walk the line between being a boon and a bane for us, and I’m finding it hard to shake that feeling now.
Daniele Rugani — 7.5
Continuing my streak of honesty, I’ll say this: For much of the first six or seven months of the season, I thought Rugani was by far our best defender. I’ve been worried about how much the young soon-to-be star defender would be able to grow with such an established hierarchy of veteran modern day legends to compete against, but Rugani has really surprised me, in that he seems to be taking the best of his “teachers,” and applying all those learnings to become a scarily complete looking prospect. The days of the young 22-year-old looking timid and conscious on the ball seem to be from a lifetime ago.
He no longer appears hesitant to dive into the challenge and make the professional foul for the team, collecting a respectable number of yellow cards this season. He has added an aerial dominance to his game that makes it seem as though he has been studying Benatia and Chiellini like a man possessed, a fact reflected in his heartening return of three goals this season. He also appears far more confident in bringing the ball forward and making forward passes. His reading of the game needs no introduction, and it was the trait he was known for even before he had the chance to study Barzagli up close. He does have areas he can improve in, of course, particularly his one-on-one defending, marking and passing range, but the signs are looking extremely encouraging. He also seems to have developed a wonderful chemistry with all our defenders, and easily adapted to playing on either side of a back three, as well as both the right and left center back in a back four.
Particularly impressive is the fact that despite his young age and infrequent playing time, he was ushered into the starting lineup in a variety of positions in the both the back three and four, and was able to slot in seamlessly into the machine that is the Juventus defensive system with not just little fuss, but while also looking supremely confident and capable. He also looked completely at ease in hostile atmospheres such as Sevilla’s Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, and managed to notch an impressive three goals in his limited playing time, further outlining the work he’s done on his aerial game/threat.
He was a little unlucky to get injured at the time of the season where Max Allegri was using Chiellini sparingly, and I thought it was unfair that Benatia was given more playing time than him before that, but the future does look very bright. I just hope the management realize that his time is already here, it’s now. We have the real deal on our hands. If I was Allegri, I’d try and get the Bonucci-Rugani partnership firing on all cylinders next season.
Leonardo Bonucci — 8
A case, and a pretty compelling one at that, can be made for Big Leo being the best defender in the world right now. Personally, if you ask me, he was the best defender in the world...last season, however. I think Big Leo has had a quieter year this time around, though he still absolutely deserves to be in the discussion for best defender around. It is worth mentioning that he endured a pretty torrid opening few months to the season, not on the field, but off it. It must be scary for any father to see their child suffer, let alone face a life-threatening illness. It must have weighed heavily on his mind, understandably, and it showed. He admitted himself that he found it hard to find the motivation to play football at a time like that.
That context having been established, Bonucci still had a great season. I just think we didn’t truly see him hit peak form and focus until his spat with Allegri and subsequent dropping for the game against Porto. There on, I feel like Bonucci finally emerged from his shell and began to dominate the game the way we all know he can. Ridiculous passing and vision, brilliant anticipation and positioning, a natural and vocal leader of the squad on the pitch and in the dressing room, and goals in crucial games. The real Bonucci was finally back, and at the perfect time no less.
I think once and for all, we can put the question of Bonucci not being as good in a back four to rest...for all eternity. There was no premise for it in my opinion, and the Chiellini-Bonucci duo, when in form, must have been frightening for strikers to behold, and was a joy as a Juventus fan to behold.
I wouldn’t sell him, no matter what the price. I’d build the new defense — including the likes of Rugani, Benatia, Mattia Caldara, etc. — around him. He is a leader. Losing Barzagli and Chiellini will be hard enough, in both the dressing room and on the field, but remember we will soon be losing the mammoth pillar that is Gigi Buffon, too. Bonucci is therefore, in my opinion, absolutely critical to the transition we will soon be forced to face — and that’s discounting his immense skill and quality.
A mammoth 3,374 minutes in Serie A and Europe alone highlight his and his ridiculous fitness’ importance to the squad. To me, he is irreplaceable and absolutely not for sale, no matter how stupid the offer.
Giorgio Chiellini — 9
Finally...FINALLY...it seems Max, Giorgio, the medical team, everyone, has learned their lesson. Father Time is indeed cruel, but he must be respected. A constantly-injured King Kong isn’t worth a lot, but a fit one is the immovable object and bedrock upon which the Juventus Defensive Wall is built. And so, after a quiet start to the season, with the niggling injuries and question marks still remaining, the beast incarnate soon emerged from his slumber, and put Father Time back in his place.
Max deserves a lot of credit for his smart and calculated use of the Italian veteran, because it was a defining factor in the way we turned our season around. Giorgio dominated everyone, and everything. He was perfection, a flawless work of art. He showed exactly what he still has in the tank. And all while earning his master’s degree. If Gigi is Superman, I wonder what Superhero Chiellini would be.
He’s always been a big game player, but his play has been somewhat error prone these last few seasons, not to mention his annoying habit of rushing into games too quickly after an injury and injuring himself again. That changed this season, however. We have all been reminded of just how scary an on-song Chiellini can be, and there are few defenders as complete in the modern game as him. A beast in the air, blessed with a stunning gift of tackling, a man marker with no rival, he is Herculean. My dear friend Paolo C articulated it so nicely when he said it took watching the team live to realize just how incredible Chiellini is. There is truly nothing he cannot do. Even his passing, a long standing joke considering his “less than graceful” style of controlling and playing the ball, has proven to be game changing at times this season.
He is THE Master, and clearly, if smartly utilized (which all signs point to being the case), he can still be a key player in any success this team might enjoy. His games against Barcelona alone should be used an instructional guide for all aspiring defenders for years to come. In my opinion, he was not only our Centerback of the Year, but one of our players of the year.
And hence, we conclude my season ratings for our center backs. What do you guys think? How would you rate our center backs for this season? Its been nice to be back and write something for you guys again!