Hot takes are sizzling like hot cakes in a Waffle House, all in reaction to Leonardo Bonucci’s anticipated move back to Juventus in exchange for Mattia Caldara and a Gonzalo Higuain loan-to-obligated purchase. Some Juventus fans are calling the move “stupid,” some Juventus fans are calling the former Bianconeri center back a “snake” for pushing for a return to Turin, and some Juventus fans are going so far as to claim this move from Beppe Marotta is the CEO’s “first truly stupid move.”
The stupid, unsexy truth about this move is that it’s both risky and tactically intelligent; it’s both difficult and precarious. The wisdom in the move goes beyond financial necessity, and surely that element plays a vital role — our ignorance to the particulars notwithstanding; the move even goes beyond Bonucci’s superior experience to Caldara, beyond the “win-now” mantra in the wake of the first days of the Cristiano Ronaldo era.
This is the right move — though difficult and risky — because Juventus do not need another defender; they need a passer.
Bonucci is the vastly superior playmaker
Juventus’ struggles against the press last year were fairly well-documented and certainly immediately apparent against top teams, and useless as preseason games are it’s been somewhat astounding to see Bayern Munich Lite and Benfica press almost at will. Juve was playing without its best players, too, but the starters for both of those friendlies were first-team players for the most part.
Caldara may very well be a better defender than Bonucci, but Bonucci is an exponentially better passer. This, to me, is the slickest sleight of hand from Marotta. If this swap were a like-for-like move, then it’d be frustrating. But the fact that both players are labeled “center backs” belies the fact that, in reality, they offer completely different skill sets.
Last year alone, Bonucci averaged nearly 17 more passes per game than Caldara, and at a better percentage to boot. Number of passes, of course, isn’t any sort of indicator alone. Where Leo’s skills — which, surely, we can all agree were sorely missed last year — really shine through are in his key passes and long balls per game. The former statistical blows Caldara out of the water: last season, when theoretically Bonucci wasn’t at his best, he averaged four times the amount of key passes per game (0.4 to 0.1). In the latter category, long balls per game, Bonucci doubles Caldara 7.7 to 3.8.
From my point of view, Miralem Pjanic factors in here. Against high-pressing teams a year ago, Juve’s gem midfielder seemed often stranded, left hanging ahead of the center backs with only Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia as outlets. I think adding Bonucci is going to do wonders to Pjanic’s freedom in the midfield. None of this is to mention the players to whom Bonucci will be sending balls are going to be exponentially better, too. Bonucci to Ronaldo over the top of defenses . . . yes, please.
But let’s not stop at uncontextualized passes. Below is a comparison chart for Bonucci and Caldara, courtesy of Understat.com, which not only shows how clearly different the players are in possession — Caldara the goalscorer, Bonucci the well-rounded distributor — but shows, most importantly, the exponential superiority Bonucci offers in successful build-up play.
The two statistics I’m looking at most are xGChain90 — “total xG of every possession the player is involved in per 90 minutes” — and KP90 — “passes lead to shot per 90 minutes.” Over the last two seasons from which these stats were derived (I wanted a bigger sample size, plus to account for Bonucci at Juventus and a season in which Caldara was in non-injured form), Bonucci was a significantly more important player for his side’s build-up than Caldara. Even accounting for tactical differences between AC Milan and Atalanta, this has always been part of Leo’s game.
Bonucci more than doubled Caldara’s mark in expected goals in which the players were involved in possession, and he more than tripled Caldara in passes that led to shots. I don’t know that I can overstate how important that’s going to be this year as teams look for different ways to exploit Juventus.
Still, losing Caldara is not fun at all
I don’t want to pretend like it doesn’t suck to lose Caldara. I know it’s not the most riveting take or whatever, but I just don’t think this move is either the end of the world or the smartest thing in the world. Bonucci is, in my mind, an objectively better fit in terms of tactics. But it also extremely sucks to part with a young center back who could have the guts and skill to be the best Italian center back of his generation.
There’s no getting around this. There’s no getting around the fact that handing Caldara to a team with Alessio Romagnoli really, really stings. The kid scored seven goals just two seasons ago, for goodness sake. He’s talented as hell, poised, tough, and already experienced.
I do think it’s worth pondering, though, whether fans would feel differently about Caldara leaving simply if he wasn’t Italian, because there does seem to be a fair amount of fetishization of Italianness and being Juventino, and I’m just not quite sure it matters all that much.
One would hope that Marotta is now going to flat-out refuse all offers for Daniele Rugani, to at least retain one center back talisman (not to mention a younger player for the depth chart), but you never know these days. I can imagine the bottom really falling out for many fans, though.
Finally, the idea that younger players will not want to come to Juventus — because Juventus hurt Caldara’s feelings or something, or because Max Allegri doesn’t feature them very often — is something I can’t really buy. If Juventus are winning, young players will come. If Juventus are acquiring players like Ronaldo, playing players like Paulo Dybala, and raising trophies, players will come. In the last few weeks alone the club has secured signatures from star youth players Pablo Moreno, a Barcelona youth product, and Christian Makoun, who, if sources are to be trusted, was drawing serious interest from Real Madrid (and Arsenal, if that means anything).
I can’t shake the feeling that this is just a difficult move, whether or not it succeeds for one or both clubs. It’s complicated. It’s fraught. The probability that it ends up being a very good swap for both teams seems relatively high to me: Bonucci is clearly the better fit for this current Juventus side, Milan acquires a center back pairing for the foreseeable future, and Juventus may find just enough financial freedom to secure a promising center back elsewhere in the next couple seasons, especially when Andrea Barzagli retires in 2021.
Note: The first draft of this article made the following claim: “Some Juventus fans are going so far as to claim this move from Beppe Marotta may be ‘the beginning of the end.’” This was a mischaracterization of Sam’s expressed and intended thought, and I apologize for the carelessness.