After a couple of underwhelming seasons with Maurizio Sarri then Andrea Pirlo in charge, Juventus returned to a familiar face at the tiller with Massimiliano Allegri for the 2021-22 campaign. The man who had made the defence the bedrock of all his successes at the club was expected to once again instill the solid defensive principles up and down this roster to ensure the winning ways continued.
However, as Juve faltered right out of the gate to begin the 2021-22 season, it looked like chairman Andrea Agnelli had made a big, big mistake. The Bianconeri suddenly looked even more incompetent defending than before, with players making uncharacteristic errors and gifting opponents goals like Halloween candy.
Allegri pleaded for patience and eventually got the black and white bus back on track, but there was a feeling that the entire side was always just a silly error away from calamity, which did rear its ugly head time and again this season.
While the mistakes were aplenty, from the goalkeeping position all the way through the squad to the strikers, for this analysis here we look at the central defenders, a position that was not immune to the malaise this club has found itself struck by. Even veterans and world-renowned defenders like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci struggled at times to impose themselves on the game, and the wealth of their experience seemed to have been frittered away.
In particular, Juve’s lack of pace throughout the side was laid bare for the world to see. It was mostly in possession that they tended to get caught, with poor positioning contributing to the precarious situation that proved itself over and over again. The Bianconeri defence often got caught out by teams with a quick transition game, but that was not the only problem as Allegri’s insistence on parking the bus once the team had the lead in the second half invited more and more pressure heaped on the backline.
Giorgio Chiellini — 6.5
It is only appropriate that we start this review with the club captain and the side’s elder statesman, who is leaving Juve after so many years of dedication to the cause and even in his last game embodies the spirit of grinta with blood pouring down his face from a gash.
Chiellini ended up featuring in 26 games for a total of 1,600 minutes across all competitions, but it was clear he was struggling with fitness for much of that. Between an assortment of muscle and adductor issues and a calf injury later in the season, it was clear this would be his last season with the Bianconeri.
On the pitch, pretty much every defender had a part to play in the early season struggles, and the captain was not immune. He still celebrated every crucial tackle with the same gusto as he always does, but more often than not this last season we would see him arms akimbo and head down as the goalie picked the ball out of the net, powerless in using his sizable presence to prevent a goal.
Still, he came this close to ending his career in Italy with yet another trophy in the Coppa Italia final, and his farewell game in Turin when he came off the pitch in the 17th minute to rousing applause from the adoring fans will long live in the memory.
Matthijs de Ligt — 7
Despite all the question marks over his time in Turin, it does look like he will be staying at Juve and the departure of Chiellini makes the young Dutchman’s presence in the middle of defence even more important. As is often said whenever discussing the 22-year-old’s performances, the lofty ceiling set by huge expectation and his large transfer fee was always going to make things difficult for him as he would have to be almost perfect to get even a passing grade.
In his third season at Juve, de Ligt showed some physical resilience, overcoming the injury-marred campaigns from his first two years to play 42 games in all competitions, and picking up three goals in nearly 3,700 minutes played.
It is important to remember that he is still only 22, and will continue to improve. There were long stretches of this season when he was absolutely unbeatable, making critical last ditch tackles, intelligently positioning himself to cut off advances, progressing the ball up the pitch and even popping up in the opposition box to score.
While de Ligt doesn’t have a propensity to dive into tackles, it is the area of his game that needs most work. He has conceded fouls at critical junctures of the game that have put Juve in bad situations, not least the recent Coppa Italia final. It’s pretty clear that de Ligt will turn into a dominant defender, and could feasibly have a long and distinguished career like two of his fellow center back teammates, but for now he still does best when playing with a solid presence next to him, and it will be the sporting director’s responsibility to ensure that Chiellini is aptly replaced.
Leonardo Bonucci — 7
Maybe watching Chiellini leave might trigger something in Bonucci and he could step it up a notch or two, but for now he has also looked like the rigors of age are catching up to him. There was an overall maturation to his game this season, as he matched his best season with five goals and was only booked once throughout the campaign, playing in 34 games for just over 2,800 minutes.
Muscular problems earlier in the year and then a calf ailment in the run-up to the last month of the season meant he had to be pulled out of the rotation. Like we saw with Chiellini over the last couple of years, Allegri will not be able to rely on the aging Bonucci to play game after game, which makes nailing the next signing at central defender even more critically important.
At 35 years old, Bonucci is not getting any younger, but he has been playing smarter. You will see him hang that metre or two further back when Juve are in possession, but that has come at the price of limiting his passing range. He has long been one of Juve’s secret passing weapons, with his deep searching balls over the backline often a source of chance creation for the Bianconeri.
Allegri lined Juve up mostly in a back four this last season, and it will be interesting to see if this is the way he wants to proceed, or if this was just the anomaly with only four senior centerbacks available to him. Bonucci has looked most comfortable in the three-man defence, but has shown he can work well in a four-man defence too if the backline is shielded well by a fast, hardworking defensive midfielder (Psst Max, his name is Zak).
Daniele Rugani — 6
Let’s be honest here: If someone had told you at the beginning of the season Rugani would play 18 games this season, you would have thought everything has gone horribly wrong and Juve were destined for a mid-table finish. However, he actually lined up in and played a number of critical fixtures in January and March for Juve, and acquitted himself mostly well in all of those.
It’s difficult to think of Rugani as a veteran player considering how sparingly he has been used in his time at the Bianconeri. More than anything else, he has been cursed with being the defender that was expected to continue the legacy of the BBC, and was unable to carry the weight of those expectations. When Andrea Barzagli retired, Rugani came into the spotlight front and center and unfortunately for him, that is a very, very high bar to reach.
Rugani did well enough this season when needed, but again it’s hard to see Allegri trusting him as a regular starter. At 27 years old, he is no longer a player in development, and while he will learn to play smarter at this age, there is a feeling he has reached his ceiling.