When Giorgio Chiellini’s major knee injury was announced mere hours before Juventus faced Napoli back in August, the collective thought process from Juventini around these parts was nothing short of panic, gut-punching disappointment and anything close to being related to those kinds of feelings.
There was more than just a little bit of sadness seeing as Chiellini, at the age of 35, only has so many more years left to play at a high level — and that was before undergoing major knee surgery. There was almost certainly some kind of doubt creeping into your mind, with Juve’s captain and best defender going down injured for the majority of a season that has so much riding on it. And, on top of all, there was a bunch of uncertainty, with immediate pressure being put on Matthijs de Ligt’s young shoulders to immediately fill the massive Puma boots of Chiellini rather than being slow-played into the starting lineup.
Oh, and one more thought: This is now Leonardo Bonucci’s defense ... and that, based on what we knew coming into the 2019-20 campaign, might not be a good thing based on how he played in his first season back with the Italian champions. (Or the fact that the simple notion that Mattia Caldara was used in the deal to bring Bonucci back to Juventus, either.)
All of it made sense. As Juve’s summer transfer window played out, Bonucci and Alex Sandro were the only two starting defenders back from last season’s squad. We didn’t know that Juan Cuadrado would undergo a career renaissance of sorts as a fullback just yet. And sure, Chiellini would be around and cheering — and probably doing some form of coaching, too — from the sidelines whenever possible, but with the lack of a certain guy in the No. 3 jersey starting the majority of Juventus’ game there was suddenly a major hole that needed to be filled.
Through the first three months of the 2019-20 season, it’s not the young man who has taken over Chiellini’s starting spot in the squad that has filled those big shoes and gotten some much-deserved shine as a result of it all. (Although, de Ligt has had his fair share of moments — both good and bad — thus far.)
It’s been the guy who took over wearing the captain’s armband who has been Juve’s most consistent defender so far this year — much to the surprise of many based on what we saw from Bonucci a large portion of last season.
As Juventus’ defense has dealt with injuries to the fullback position (something that led to the Cuadrado fullback revolution) and de Ligt deal with a bumpy start to his career in Turin as he adjusts to Italian football, it’s been Bonucci that has been the constant, rock-solid presence at the back for Juventus. The same can be said about Wojciech Szczesny, sure, but seeing as we’re talking defenders here, we’ll keep Tek out of the picture just for now. (But keep doing you, Woj, you’re good ... very, very good.)
The thing about Bonucci’s return to being one of the best players on the field for Juventus is the simple fact that it’s come when the club as a whole has needed it the most. He no longer has Chiellini on the field to potentially clean up the messes behind him like there was last season and for much of his first tenure with Juventus. He’s got the best young defensive prospect in all of Europe in de Ligt next to him, but the fact that he’s still 21 years old and learning the ways of Juventus, playing alongside Bonucci and Serie A all at the same time means that things won’t always be as smooth as they were when the young Dutchman was one of the most impressive players in Europe while he was leading Ajax into the Champions League semifinals last season.
Bonucci has had to lead both the defense and the squad as a whole as Juve’s stand-in captain. (At least on the field during games as Chiellini sits in the stands or on the bench.)
And when Maurizio Sarri needed him to answer the call, Bonucci has done exactly that.
That was obviously a question mark when Chiellini was first diagnosed with a torn knee ligament and looked at a six-month absence right in the face. Juventus is a better team with Chiellini on the field than without him, and taking him out of a defense that had plenty of uncertainties didn’t exactly bring a whole lot of confidence regardless of de Ligt being signed over the summer.
Bonucci, one of those question marks even when Chiellini was still healthy, has since taken the opportunity to become a key player in Sarri’s side and, in the first 2 1⁄2 months of the season, has completely run with it. The Bonucci we saw last season that struggled to find any kind of positive form, made game-changing errors in defense on a handful of occasions and had trouble simply marking his man at times is now looking like a thing of the past. (And also said a few idiotic things in the press, but that’s another matter for another day.)
Instead, Bonucci is making plays like this:
That one goal-line clearance is one of the highlights of Bonucci’s season. But it’s been Bonucci’s consistency that might be the most impressive thing to see from him so far this season — especially when you consider just how much of a mess he was during his only year with Milan and then in his first year back with Juventus. Those game-altering mistakes from Bonucci haven’t been nearly as prevalent or any kind of thing for virtually the entire season, that in of itself a major accomplishment based on what was happening this time last season.
And, as we sit here in the middle of the November international break, Juventus has allowed a Serie A-low nine goals in the first 12 league games of the season.
That isn’t exactly great since we’re so used to Juve racking up shutout after shutout and suffocating the opposition and making sure Szczesny or Gigi Buffon have little to nothing to do as a result. But, still, when you look at the top defenses in Serie A this season, there’s Juventus right at the top — a place the Italian champions have pretty much occupied for pretty much every season of their current title run.
It’s almost like, in a way, Bonucci’s the defensive equivalent to what Paulo Dybala is going through so far this season. Not that there was any kind of doubt that Bonucci was leaving this summer despite random rumors linking him to Paris Saint-Germain after de Ligt was signed or that he’s got four other dudes competing for playing time with him. But, Dybala had a disappointing season a year ago like Bonucci did, and this season has essentially been a return to the players we know they can be just when we were questioning if they could get back to that level once again.
Bonucci was a liability at the back last season.
This season, he’s been forced to become The Guy.
And knowing full well that Chiellini wasn’t going to be returning to the starting lineup until the first few weeks of the second half of the season at the earliest, both Sarri and Juventus as a whole needed Bonucci to be exactly that.
He’s done it, and become a player Juventus can rely on once more.