There was a good deal of upheaval in Juventus’ center-back corps in the 2017-18 season.
The departure of Leonardo Bonucci — less shocking than it first seemed when you look at the problems he had with Massimiliano Allergi during the 2016-17 season — was taken by many observers at the beginning of the season as the death stroke to the Bianconeri’s string of titles. Not only had the vaunted BBC defense been dissolved, it had lost its youngest and best piece — perhaps the best defensive player in the world.
For a while it looked like they were all right. Juve surrendered three goals to Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana to start the season, had to come back from two goals down to beat Genoa in the second week of the year, and got hammered by Barcelona 3-0 in the Champions League. As the season’s early phases went by, Juve had surrendered 14 goals in 13 league games and 22 in 18 in all competitions.
But after a 3-2 loss away to Sampdoria — a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score made it seem — the defense finally buckled down. Helped in part by a tactical shift that prevented the team from getting overwhelmed in midfield, Juventus kept eight straight clean sheets. They allowed more than one goal in a game only four times the rest of the year, and finished the season, once again, the league’s top defense, conceding 24 goals, four fewer than Roma.
How did Juve’s center backs fare individually? Today, as part of our annual season ratings, we run down the men in the middle of defense, and grade them on a scale of 1-10.
Obviously, the higher the number, the better. Players will be listed in alphabetical order.
Andrea Barzagli — 5.5
As well as Barzagli can still play in any given game, the sad fact is that Father Time has finally taken a firm lead in his race with The Wall.
When facing a guy up, Barzagli is still incredibly difficult to get around. He’s not, and never has been, a bruiser, but his positioning and intelligence often means he doesn’t have to get into a tackle to begin with.
The problem is when the ball ends up behind him. He’s had problems with pacy players for a while now, but this year he was downright overwhelmed at times, especially against the best competition. Juve’s worst performances in the Champions League — the 3-0 to Barcelona in the group stage, the first legs of the knockout ties against both Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid — all came with Barzagli on the field. Against Spurs in particular, playing out of position at right back, he was repeatedly beaten for pace as Tottenham swamped the team after Juve took the quick 2-0 lead. He was also somewhat wanting against Inter at the end of April, poking in an own goal and finding it difficult to cope with the Nerazzurri’s attacking corps.
The 37-year-old is likely to extend his contract one more season, and he would be an important locker room presence in a team that will be losing some of its leadership this summer. But his on-field role should be drastically reduced. If he starts more than 10 games or so, something will have gone seriously wrong.
Medhi Benatia — 6
Benatia’s season was defined by long streaks of form.
At the beginning of the year, he was an absolute shambles. He made a number of ugly mistakes that led to goals, particularly in the away game against Barca, where he was directly responsible for Barca’s last two strikes.
Frankly, it was mind-boggling how he was keeping his place in the starting XI given how badly he was doing.
But then something clicked. It happened in November right about the time he scored the goal that secured World Cup qualification for his country, and that’s probably not a coincidence. He was imperious in the return leg against Barcelona, and over the next two-and-a-half months he was an integral part of the back line, pairing with Giorgio Chiellini to form a formidable duo that had everyone claiming he was the new “B” in BBC.
He also scored twice in that stretch, including a key strike on a corner that proved the only tally in Juve’s 1-0 win over Roma just before Christmas. His absence due to yellow card accumulation was considered a key factor in the 3-0 loss to Real Madrid that ultimately ended Juve’s Champions League campaign, especially after Barzagli was abused in his place.
But then, right at the business end of the season, the switch flipped off. In the potential title decider at home against Napoli, Benatia played well for the balance of the game, but shut down at the exact moment he absolutely couldn’t, losing Kalidou Koulibaly on a corner in the last minute of the game.
The effect of that mistake on his standing was palpable. Rumors flew of a row over the error between Benatia and Gianluigi Buffon, and while those were hastily shot down, the defender only started one more game after that.
Admittedly, it was the Coppa Italia final, and he did score an improbable brace in the second half thanks to some terrible marking by Alessio Romagnoli and an absolute howler by Gianluigi Donnarumma, but for Benatia to be benched the week after Napoli — an away game at Inter that would have huge title implications — was telling, especially with Chiellini out for the year with a muscle injury.
That long stretch of success in the middle of the season means that Benatia’s season was, on balance, a positive one. But his mistakes at the beginning and end of the season were pretty glaring, and are impossible to completely put aside, especially at the end.
Giorgio Chiellini — 7
Leadership. Grinta. Skill. Productivity.
Giorgio Chiellini had all of these in spades for another season. And yet, this season didn’t seem to be quite as good as it was last year.
A lot of that had to do with health. Last year, Chiellini was rested a lot more regularly and so was able to avoid the injury bugs that have popped up for him over the course of the years. This season, with the title race so tightly poised for so long, Chielo played roughly 500 more minutes in Serie A than he did last season. That led to a few niggling injuries that saw him miss a game here or there. Eventually, the big one found him, and he hobbled off with a muscle tear 11 minutes into the Napoli game last month, ending his season.
When he did play, he was immense. He averaged 5.6 clearances per game between Serie A and the Champions League, and consistently topped that in big games. In the second leg of the round of 16 against Tottenham he was nothing short of incredible, registering four tackles, two interceptions, three blocked shots, and a whopping 13 clearances — including a potentially game-saving effort that took a goal away from Harry Kane and produced the most GIF-able moment of the season as Buffon grabbed him by the shirt and the two old warriors each let out primal screams.
With counting stats roughly even with his career averages, Chielo did indeed have a good year, consistently leading from his place at the back. He deserves the captain’s armband that he will inherit next season, and he still has a few years left to play at high levels — but the recurrence of his injury problems put a small drag in what otherwise was a typically excellent year.
Benedikt Howedes — s/v
Here’s a lost season if there ever was one.
Benedikt Howedes came to Juventus with the promise of being a quality Swiss Army defender, equally capable of manning the middle and either fullback spot.
But the German could never outrun the injury bug. It took until the end of November for him to make his first appearance of the season, playing 68 minutes as part of a back three in a 3-0 win over Crotone.
But the training ground quickly claimed him again, and he wasn’t healthy enough to play again until April. He announced himself there with a headed goal cutting in from right-back, then started on the right again the next week before kicking inside to center back after Chiellini was injured.
There just isn’t enough body of work here to fairly judge him, which is a shame because he could have been a really useful piece. Juve has an option on him, but it seems unlikely they would exercise it after a season like this.
Daniele Rugani — 5.5
Most thought that Rugani would be the biggest beneficiary of Bonucci’s departure, but he was never really given minutes in big games this year. Given all of the club’s talk about Rugani being a key piece of the future, and the fact that he’s already proven over the course of his Juve career that he can handle big games — namely the away group game against Sevilla in the Champions League last year that decided Juve’s qualification for the knockouts — that seemed strange. It was even more so as we kept witnessing Benatia make mistake after mistake early in the year. Benatia did eventually earn his place in the lineup, but up until that point there wasn’t a lot of justification to leave Rugani out in his favor.
When Rugani did play, he wasn’t spectacular, but usually steady, though was responsible two of the three best individual defensive plays any Juve player made all season. The first came at the end of October in the 2-0 win over AC Milan at San Siro. After a Nikola Kalinic shot rebounded off the crossbar, Hakan Calhanoglu bore down on the rebound with an empty net in front of him, but Rugani identified him instantly and threw himself to his knees between the Turkey international and the goal, blocking his header with his chest and denying him an equalizing goal.
The second came in the away leg of the Derby della Mole when a midfield mistake forced him to defend a two-on-one rush. Rugani refused to overcommit to the man in possession and covered Andrea Belotti, running to his left, well enough to force an errant pass, forcing the striker to chase after the ball on the wing and allowing his teammates to get back in support.
He did have his share of downs this season. Against Inter last month, for instance, he got faked out by Ivan Perisic in the lead-up to Barzagli’s own goal, and in the season finale got beaten to a ball by Alessio Cerci for Verona’s consolation goal, but he also grew into a more physical player as the season went on, cracking a player one if he needed to every now and again when he wouldn’t have in years past.
I think talk of serious regression on his part are wildly inaccurate, as is the suggestion that he is not Juventus quality. That being said, he does have work to do next year. If he wants to cement his status as a long-term foundation piece for this team, he’ll have to take his place by the scruff of the next next year. If he does that, the long-term prospects of a partnership between him and Mattia Caldara are mouth-watering. But his inability to do so this season drags down his grade, even if on the whole his season wasn’t a bad one.