Before this past week, I didn’t know that Wojciech Szczesny, Juventus’ still-relatively new No. 1 goalkeeper, had a web series on YouTube for his Polish-speaking audience back home. In one of their most recent episodes, Szczesny and his co-host had on Juve’s Chief Football Officer, Fabio Paratici, for a chat on the topic of many different football-related topics.
Toward the end of the very, very good 20-minute Q&A session, the three of them got on the topic of how the game has evolved and how there are only a certain number of players of a certain playing style remain from a decade or two ago. “And now, if you want to buy this kind of player, it’s difficult,” Paratici went on to say when speaking of players he draw a liking to when he first got into the football scouting business. The prime example of how things have changed, Szczesny adds, is how 10 or 15 years ago the “typical kind of central defender” was Giorgio Chiellini.
There is no denying that the modern game has shifted toward having central defenders in the mold of Leonardo Bonucci who defend (most of the time) and can also be incredible contributors to the attack out of the the back rather than those like Chiellini who are there to wreck you with every tackle they pot forward. (They aren’t wrong, by the way.)
Here’s one thing that’s also true: At the age of 34 years old, Chiellini is currently having one of the best seasons of his career.
If you were to draw up the perfect start to Chiellini’s tenure as Juventus’ captain, it probably would be what’s actually going on in front of us this season. Chiellini — who himself was a guest on Szczesny’s online interview show as he displayed his English skills — has been about as good defensively as Cristiano Ronaldo has been leading Juventus’ attack.
Or we can just watch Chiellini do his thing in gif form...
God, that’s beautiful. It’s just shot-blocking beauty at its finest — which is something that Chiellini has seemingly mastered as he’s gotten older.
It wasn’t that long ago — just a few years back during this current Scudetto run that is looking like it will be extended to eight years — that we worried that injuries and the simple matter of Father Time were going to catch up with Chiellini. It was impossible to avoid. There were stretches where Chiellini would start a game, get hurt in the first half, miss a couple of weeks, come back and then almost immediately get hurt again. That wasn’t just a one-time thing, either — it happened more often than Chiellini would probably want you to realize.
In the 2015-16 season, Chiellini made just 21 Serie A starts.
In the 2016-17 season, Cheillini made just 20 Serie A starts.
The number of starts Chiellini made in both Serie A and the Champions League in each of those two seasons? It didn’t surpass 30, my friends.
Chiellini was just entering his 30s and it looked like his body was starting to break down right in front of our eyes. And, with a playing style that certainly doesn’t involve shying away from contact and would-be destruction against opposing strikers to protect his own well-being, it’s not like what we knew about Chiellini was going to suggest that those lingering injuries were suddenly going to disappear and all would be perfectly fine for Juve’s part-time economics wiz.
Yet, here we are. And he’s healthy.
Chiellini has started 13 of Juve’s first 19 Serie A games this season, with manager Max Allegri well aware of the fact that his team’s new captain will need maintenance days — AKA a night off every so often — to ensure that he will be able to recover and not be at risk for the bigger and more important games on Juve’s schedule.
But, if there ever was a season where Chiellini’s importance to the Juventus squad was exemplified when he steps onto the pitch, this is one of them.
Chiellini is not the statistical monster he has been game-in and game-out in previous seasons — he’s current 11th ... on the Juventus roster in tackles per game, according to WhoScored. (That’s hard to believe, I know, but those are the numbers that we’ve been given.) Rodrigo Bentancur has more interceptions per game (1.5) than Chiellini does (1.3) this season. The only two categories that Chiellini has a team-best total amongst regular starters are clearances (3.5) and blocked shots (0.9) per game.And for somebody that plays about as physical as any defender in Europe these days, Chiellini has gotten exactly one yellow card in league play this season.
So what has made Chiellini so good this season?
It’s everything, really. I know that’s not the stat-driven, intellectual answer, but it’s hard to look at any portion of Chiellini’s game these days and say that it’s not as sharp as its been in years. He’s made tackle after tackle — no matter what the WhoScored stats may say — and been the leader of a defense that has two extremely offense-minded fullbacks and a center back partner in Leonardo Bonucci who, as we’ve come to find out, has been more of the Milan Bonucci than Juventus 1.0 Bonucci through the first half of the 2018-19 season.
And with so many new elements to Juve’s backline at the start of the season, Chiellini being the Chiellini of old has been just what they needed. He’s certainly delivered just that, hasn’t he?
In that same interview with Paratici, Szczesny mentions the amusing tidbit that Joao Cancelo is the kind of defender you have to talk to all the time as a goalkeeper because he has the tendency to relax even the slightest bit during a match. “If you just let him be on the pitch, he tends to relax. You have to be on him for 90 minutes,” Szczesny said.
As Szczesny goes on to say, “With Chiellini, I don’t even have to talk one word.”
Based on how he’s played this season, it’s pretty easy to see why Szczesny doesn’t have to say anything other than a few atta boys to Chiellini throughout the match. He’s just been that good — and we love every minute of it.