Despite winning a record ninth straight Serie A league title, the 2019-2020 season was a strange one for Juventus. The defense, once one of the club’s proudest hallmarks, suffered badly this season as the Bianconeri conceded more goals in the league (43) than in any of the previous eight title victories.
(Note: According to Transfermarkt.com, Juventus played 52 games this season. All statistics in this article are also courtesy of Transfermarkt.com.)
While there is much more to a team’s defense than just the defenders, they are the ones most under the microscope after such a poor season. So let’s take a look at how the heart of the defense fared: the center backs.
Merih Demiral — n/a
It doesn’t feel right to give a score to a defender that appeared in only 15 percent of Juve’s games in all competitions. In the few games that he did play, though, the young Turk showed flashes of the type of stalwart defending that convinced Juventus to sign the highly rated defender for €18 million. Unfortunately, though, Demiral suffered a torn ACL injury and meniscus damage after being subbed out with less than 20 minutes to go in Juve’s 2-1 away victory over Roma in early January, the same game in which the Italian wonderkid Nicolo Zaniolo also tore his ACL.
Despite how frequently these types of injuries have prematurely derailed the careers of many footballers, I still believe that the future is bright for Demiral. With Matthijs de Ligt out for three months to recover from shoulder surgery and Demiral seemingly fully recovered from his knee injury, the stage is set for the latter to fill the huge void (literally and figuratively) left by the Dutchman for the first month or two of the next season.
Will he rise to the occasion? Only time shall tell.
Minutes Played: 598
Giorgio Chiellini — n/a
As was the case with Demiral, it doesn’t feel appropriate to give a score to a player who appeared in less than 10 percent of Juve’s games this season and played only one-third the number of minutes that Demiral did. In contrast to the young defender, though, Chiellini’s future seems to be much bleaker.
The Italian veteran just turned 36 years old on Friday and his body is clearly showing the wear and tear of over a decade of professional football. He’s taking longer to recover from injuries and, when he does recover, he still doesn’t play very much.
One has to wonder what the game plan is with Chiellini for the rest of his career. He is still unquestionably a leader in the dressing room and his voice is highly respected. But what about his physical ability? Does he have enough left to be a regular starter or will he have to contend with a role as backup and behind-the-scenes leader?
Minutes Played: 201
Daniele Rugani — 5.5
Finally a player I can actually rate!
And even then, Rugani only just about meets my unofficial threshold as he played in roughly a quarter of Juventus’ games this season.
Rugani’s role this season was one of replacing the main center backs — Leonardo Bonucci and de Ligt — in case of injury, suspension, or fatigue. Overall, the young-ish Italian defender never played catastrophically bad in the few times he was called upon, but he failed to impress and certainly didn’t rise to the occasion. He was ... alright.
This is quite the turn of fortune for a player who was hailed by some as the future of the Italian defense only a few years ago — remember when Arsenal wanted him for €40 million? — It feels like we’ve all been waiting for the day that Rugani reaches his full potential, without realizing that he very well may have already done that. As I alluded to above, though, Rugani is still fairly young (26) especially for a defender.
With de Ligt set to miss the start of the season due to a nagging shoulder injury, and assuming we don’t buy any additional central defenders, I think it’s fair to say that it’s essentially a toss up between two of Chiellini, Bonucci, and Demiral for the starting positions at center back. Rugani’s performances this season have convinced me that he simply won’t be a starter for the foreseeable future.
Minutes Played: 1,047
Leonardo Bonucci — 7.5
Remarkably, Bonucci played the most minutes of any Juve player this season in all competitions. A few gaffes aside (e.g. Milan away; Lazio at home), he had an excellent season. Bonucci’s performances were all the more impressive given that his long-time partner in defense, Chiellini, was injured for essentially the entire season and that he was consequently paired with a player that he had never played with before: de Ligt. I don’t think people realize just how impactful something like that can be to a central defender.
Center back partnerships are one of the most delicate alliances in a football tea. Being paired with someone for the first time who a) doesn’t speak your language, b) wasn’t even supposed to play that much because it was expected that he would be eased in to the team while Chiellini remained a starter, c) is so young, and d) has never played in Italy before, could easily have caused all sorts of problems.
Given these factors, I was all the more impressed with Bonucci’s leadership in defense this season and mentorship to de Ligt. Bravo, Leo.
Minutes Played: 4,165
Matthijs de Ligt — 8
Always save the best for last, right?
Admittedly, my compatriot had a rough start to his first season in Italy. A series of handball penalties conceded, an inexplicable lapse in concentration against Napoli at the start of the season, a barrage of criticism from the media (in part due to his admittedly astronomical transfer fee and high salary), and an unexpected change in plans that meant he was fast-tracked into the starting lineup certainly unsettled him.
But he recovered. It seems that the turning point was the 1-0 victory over Torino (in which de Ligt scored the winning goal) in the first Derby della Mole of the season. From there, the colossal defender
with thighs the size of the Kilimanjaro barely put a foot wrong and even contributed with the odd goal here and there. The thing that most surprised me, though, was how effective his partnership with Bonucci was. The Italian defender provided the Beauty, while de Ligt provided the Beast.
Because of all these factors then, I gave de Ligt a slightly higher grade than Bonucci. One thing is for sure, though, the Dutchman’s (Juventus) future is certainly very bright. So as the Dutch would say, goed bezig, Matthijs.
Minutes Played: 3,349