Throughout Juventus’ unparalleled string of Serie A titles, defense has always been their calling card. From the moment the BBC first came together under Antonio Conte to the 2016-17 team that only allowed three goals en route to the UEFA Champions League final, Juve have been synonymous with strength in the back line. Only Atletico Madrid have come close to matching them for consistency and performance.
This year, though, that reputation took a bit of a hit. Yes, Juve finished the season having given up the fewest goals in Serie A (30), but they didn’t look anywhere close to the defensive juggernaut we’re used to seeing. They failed to keep a clean sheet in their final 10 games of the season in all competitions, and registered only nine total since the new year.
That’s not good. That’s not Juve.
One of the things Juve’s front office — and new coach — will have to figure out is how to address this issue. The backbone of Juve’s D, the center backs, were a combination of aging veterans and one youngster who desperately needs to prove himself. Giorgio Chiellini remains a pillar and, surprisingly, had one of his best seasons in years, but Father Time is creeping up, and there can’t be too many more years in King Kong’s legs. The retirement of Andrea Barzagli and likely departure of emergency depth signing Martin Caceres means that there will need to be reinforcements in this area of the team over the summer.
But that’s for the future. Today, we’re going to look at the recent past. As part of our annual player ratings, I have the honor of grading the backbone of the back line. Who were the best performers? Who might need to consider what his place will be next season? Let’s take a look.
Before we begin, two notes. First, as is my custom, players are listed alphabetically. Second, all statistics are from WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.
Andrea Barzagli — 5
It hurt your heart to see Barzagli on the field this season. Beset by numerous injuries, Barzagli only played 10 games in all competitions in what would prove to be his final season, seven in Serie A and three in Europe. Only half of them were starts.
In all honesty, Barzagli’s skills have been in steep decline for years, and last year really should’ve been his swan song. The trophy day game against Atalanta in Juve’s home finale, which saw him take a well-deserved lap of honor after being withdrawn from his final game, was Exhibit A for this. He was abused by Duvan Zapata, overwhelmed for both power and pace. Even his unparalleled positional sense couldn’t save him if he couldn’t beat guys to the spot.
Ultimately, this forgettable year will be a footnote. In the last 8 1⁄2 seasons, he’s established himself as a true Juventus legend. This season, though, he just couldn’t do it.
Medhi Benatia — 6
Yeah, Medhi Benatia was on the team this year! Remember that?
The return of Leonardo Bonucci put Benatia in a weird spot, but his situation would have been strange regardless. Had Juve stuck with Mattia Caldara rather than swapping him for Bonucci’s return, the prospect of the hotshot youngster overtaking the Moroccan in the starting XI would always have been there.
(Yes, Caldara spent almost all of the season in the trainer’s room at AC Milan, but he didn’t suffer that injury until after the transfer, so it can’t be held as a given that he’d have missed so much time had the move not gone through. But I digress.)
With Bonucci firmly plunked back into the lineup, Benatia’s playing time dried up. He only played six times until he got fed up and requested a transfer in January. There was a market for his signature, as a couple of high-profile teams could have used him to improve their defense, but ultimately he chose to Qatari team Al-Duhail.
Benatia’s six games are difficult to grade. He only took part in two clean sheets, and both of those were against the weakest opposition Juve had at the time, Young Boys and Bologna. He was never solely culpable in any of the goals given up while he was on the field, but did play a part in the equalizer against Genoa in October and gave away a penalty against AC Milan in November, only to be bailed out by Wojciech Szczesny. That game, interestingly enough, was his last for Juve, and that mistake seemed to torpedo Allegri’s confidence the same way his losing Kalidou Koulibaly against Napoli did last year.
In the end he played well enough when he was on the field, but he was hardly ever there.
Leonardo Bonucci — 4.5
Whoo, boy. OK.
When it happened, I referred to the Bonucci-for-Caldara swap as the first truly stupid move that Beppe Marotta had made as Juve’s transfer guru. As we begin to look back on the season, I think, hyperbole aside, that my judgement of the move has been validated.
The Bonucci that returned from Milan was a shell of the man that was a pillar of the BBC, the mortal lock to be captain before the acrimonious split two summers ago. The Bonucci that returned seemed to have completely lost the ability to properly mark an opponent in the box, and it seemed like every time Juve gave up a goal — especially early in the season — he was somehow involved. He evened himself out a bit in the second half of the year, ending it with three goals and two assists in 40 overall games, but he still served as a liability on occasion.
To add to that, his vaunted ball-playing seemed to take a step back as well. He did unleash a couple of his old gems with assists for Paulo Dybala (against Young Boys) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United) in the Champions League, but one of the biggest rationales for reacquiring him was that his long passing would help a team that had serious problems breaking the press in midfield the previous season, and he didn’t do it enough to offset his defensive mistakes, or to justify the high price paid to bring him back.
He didn’t make a positive impact off the field, either. An early game with the captain’s armband was met with a negative reception from fans, and he was put at the bottom of the captain’s hierarchy from there on out. Then came his tone-deaf comments in Cagliari after Moise Kean was racially abused, which essentially placed the blame for such abhorrent behavior on the teenager. If he’d kept his mouth shut after that game I’d probably have let him off with a five, but this drops him down. You simply don’t do that to a teammate, especially not in THAT situation.
All in all, I’d much rather preferred to have kept Caldara instead of bringing Bonucci back. At the time it seemed like the price the team had to pay for Milan to take on Gonzalo Higuain’s salary, but the fact that Higuain only lasted half a season at San Siro before going to Chelsea just makes it all the more galling. This was a bad move, and Bonucci had a terrible season.
Martin Caceres — 5.5
Roped into a third stint at Juventus as an emergency replacement for Benatia, Martin Caceres was bought at cut price from Lazio. He arrived in the midst of an injury crisis and was starting in the middle within four days of his return, despite the fact it had been almost two months since his last appearance at Lazio.
That game was a disaster all around, as Juve blew a pair of two-goal leads to draw 3-3 with Parma. But after that Caceres’ rapport with his teammates improved, and he played solidly but not spectacularly for the rest of his time with the team, which amounted to nine games, seven of them starts. The exception was the 2-0 loss to Genoa at the Marassi, which brings down his grade a little bit.
For an emergency move, though, this was about as good as it could get.
Giorgio Chiellini — 8
How well Chiellini played this year is nothing short of remarkable. In his first year as captain, he probably had the best season of anyone on the team not named Cristiano Ronaldo — and even then they’re running neck and neck.
He played in only 25 Serie A games this year. He was one of the only players who got regular rotation early in the season, but he also had to wage a battle with his seemingly never-ending tendency toward calf injuries toward the end of the season — a time out that included the Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax. When he was on the field, he averaged one tackle and 1.2 interceptions per match in the league this season and upped that to 1.2 and 1.7, respectively, in the Champions League.
Simply put, Juventus’ whole defense would have collapsed without Chiellini. He was a steadying presence as the back four adjusted to new player combinations and to not having Gianluigi Buffon behind them, both as a safety net and as a marshal. His leadership was a huge factor as Juve built up their massive lead in Serie A, and his absence as keenly felt when he was gone at season’s end.
Chiellini will be 35 when the new season begins, and one can only guess how many more years he has left in him at this level, but this season was a treat to watch.
Paulo Gozzi Iweru — s/v
The 18-year-old Gozzi was given a run out against SPAL the weekend between the first and second legs in the Champions League quarterfinals. He showed some real promise in that game and also how much he needed to work on. He was the team’s co-leader in tackles, but his passes at anything more than short distances were wild, and he bit too soon on a runner in the lead-up to SPAL’s eventual winner.
Still, there is a ton of potential here in the Turin-born teen, who was a mainstay in the Primavera and in the UEFA Youth League this year. His future is on the Under-23 team to see how he develops against tougher competition, but it’s unfair to give him a season rating based on only one senior appearance.
Daniele Rugani — 6
And now we come to the man who, short of Paulo Dybala, is probably the most polarizing man on the entire team.
The “dump Rugani” camp is vocal and numerous. I have always been one of Rugani’s biggest supporters, and I continue to believe in his abilities. His positional sense is excellent, and he’s begun to learn a few of the dark arts under the tutelage of Chiellini. He won more aerials than anyone on the team save Mario Mandzukic and averaged 3.4 clearances per match, second only to Chiellini’s 3.7. And he proved a lot of doomsayers wrong in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals when he stepped in for Chiellini and played an excellent match.
The more I’ve watched this season, the more convinced I’ve become that his worst looks this season have happened when he’s been trying to clean up after other people’s messes — Bonucci’s messes in particular. When he’s been partnered with Chiellini he was decidedly better than when he had Bonucci next to him. The final game of the season was an example of that in microcosm — Rugani and Chiellini held Samp without a shot on goal before Bonucci replaced the captain, after which Samp posed far more of a threat and scored twice at the end.
Who’s the real Rugani? The one who looks too timid to play on his true bad days, or the one who showed up at the Amsterdam Arena? At this point only truly consistent playing time will tell — and the way Bonucci played this year, it shouldn’t be considered a given that he’ll start under all circumstances. Next season will be a critical year for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. He will have a new coach and will be the third-senior member of the center back corps. I’m still in his corner, but next year is truly time to put up or shut up.