Leonardo Bonucci – Analysis of Juventus defensive playmaker

Salida de balón desde la defensa. Von hinten heraus aufbauen. Costruzione dalla difesa. Build-up from the back. A tactical principle more and more widespread among European teams and managers, on the spur of the incredible feats achieved by Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona a few years ago, and still grounded  in Luis Enrique’s Barca of the triplete 2.0. Tiki-taka always arose from the heart of the defence, with the involvement in build-up play of the goal-keeper Victor Valdes and of the two centre-backs Puyol and Piqué first,  Piqué and Mascherano then, often helped by the pivoté Busquets, a cultist of the “salida lavolpiana”, the tactical mechanism consisting in the lowering of one of the midfielders in between the widening central defenders of the back four, in order to create the needed numerical advantage to move the ball from the defence.

So, bid farewell to the long balls from a half of the pitch to the other, and clear the path for reasoned webs of passes, with the defenders that now have to follow through the rest of the team in possession, touching an increasing number of balls. Inevitably, individual technique becomes more and more important for a centre-back, with the antiquated limited defender ready to kick everything that moves over the pitch (legs included), consigned to the oblivion. But great technical ability is not enough. Tactical intelligence, composure on the ball, sense of position and good decision-making abilities, are all qualities needed for the role of the ball-playing defender. But centre-halves with all this kind of different abilities are a rare breed. So uncommon that even in Guardiola’s starting XI, was the defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano the one who filled the role every time Puyol needed a rest, before permanently taking his starting spot, at the time of the Masia-raised captain retirement from football

In the italian Serie A, the ball-playing defender par excellence, is Italian, plays for Juventus and for “la Nazionale”. His name is Leonardo Bonucci

Leonardo Bonucci, born in Viterbo on the 1st of May 1987
Leonardo Bonucci, born in Viterbo on the 1st of May 1987

He was born in Viterbo, and took his first steps in football at Viterbese, his home-town football club. At first, he played as central midfielder and even as a winger, thanks to his excellent technical ability, but then he was gradually moved to the centre of the defence. In 2005, Bonucci was acquired by FC Internazionale for a fee of 40.000 €. He was assigned to Inter Primavera squad, the under-19 team, in which he was the starting central defender together with Marco Andreolli and where he won the Campionato Nazionale Primavera 2006/2007. He was then loaned to Treviso, playing in the Italian Serie B for one season and a half, until January 2009, when he was loaned again to another second tier team, this time Pisa. That season was one of the darkest pages of AC Pisa history: the 100th anniversary of the club coincided with their relegation and with the subsequent bankruptcy, the second in less than 15 years. Anyway, from a personal point of view, that was for Bonucci a paramount stage in his career, in which he gained the esteem of Giampiero Ventura, the back then coach of the Tuscan team. Bonucci’s next move to Bari, was not by chance: the Biancorossi board appointed Ventura as the new club manager and he explicitly requested the young defender right away. Bari bought the co-ownership of Bonucci from Genoa, which owned the player’s card after receiving it in the deal who brought Thiago Motta and Diego Milito to José Mourinho’s Inter.

At the time, Ventura’s football trademark was the 4-2-4, a system in which the long ball from the keeper was not contemplated: the play always flowed from the back, with the goalie Jean-Francois Gillet, and the two centre-backs, Bonucci in primis, as the deep beginners of the build-up play. Thank to this particular tactical expedient and to their consistent level of performance above all, Bari defensive pair of Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia, was on everyone’s lips: impressed by their personality and their undoubted potential, the media labelled them as the two next big things of the Italian school of defenders. Bonucci didn’t miss a single game that season, featuring in all the 38 games of the Italian championship, for a total of 3420 minutes played.

His performances were noticed by Marcello Lippi, who gave him his debut with the Italian national team, and then by Juventus. On the 1st of July 2010, Bari defender completed a €15,5 million transfer to join the Bianconeri. His first season, under the guidance of Juventus boss Luigi Del Neri, was below expectations, also due to a general bad output from the team. However, Bonucci increased his record of consecutive games, playing all the Serie A games of 2010 (21 with Bari, 17 with Juventus), reaching a total of 55 consecutive games played, definitely impressive for his age (23).

The following season was the first of the Conte-era, another manager considered as a 4-2-4 hardliner, just like Ventura. At first, Bonucci was not so adamant in the ex-Juve captain hierarchies: no wonder, he warmed the bench during the first game ever at the Juventus Stadium, (Juventus 4-1 Parma). Even if he didn’t play, that match was essential for his future path with the Bianconeri: Vidal, until shortly before sat next to him on the bench, made his debut, replacing Del Piero with only 23 minutes to play. Not much, but enough time to score a goal and to impress his manager to such an extent, that Conte said “I didn’t know Vidal enough” in the post-match press conference. The 4-1-4-1 or, if you prefer, 4-3-3 deployed at the moment of Vidal’s entering on the pitch, became Juventus standard formation, because the Chilean can’t be kept on the bench. But neither Bonucci: he became the regular centre-back since the 2-0 win against AC Milan of the 2nd of October 2011, with Chiellini adapted as left-back. But Conte’s Juve, in which the influence of the coach was already undeniable, was still in fieri.

It was the 29th of November 2011. Stadio San Paolo. Napoli against Juventus. Marchisio was banned for a game, and it was hard to say what system Conte would have deployed until the start of the game: it was a 3-5-2, with from right-to-left the “BBC” defence consisting of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, deployed in order to tackle Napoli 3-4-3. The games ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw, with Conte happy to stay undefeated and praised by his team tactical flexibility. That 3-5-2, which seemed no more than a tactical adjustment dictated by the contingency of Marchisio’s absence and by the need to cope with the three Napoli forwards, became Juventus standard formation in the last part of the season, in which Conte’s team won 7 of the last 8 matches and especially the first of four Scudetto trophies in a row.

After a treble of Serie A titles won, Conte resigned from his job, and with the new coach Allegri on the bench, The Old Lady didn’t change immediately her tactical guise. At first the manager from Livorno, wisely maintained the 3-5-2, aware that it would have been rieckless to shake up in a summer, what Conte did in three years. Anyway, Allegri started to work little-by-little on the 4-3-1-2, his favourite system, also considered more suitable to European football. During the second part of the season, with Barzagli out on a long-term injury, Juventus started to play with the diamond in midfield and a four man defence, with the two centre backs deployed on the side of their favourite foot: Bonucci on the centre-right, and Chiellini on the centre-left in order to give them an advantage during deep build-up play, a vital phase in Allegri’s style of play, more possession based if compared to the direct and vertical style of Conte.

Player profile
Bonucci is a footballer, but above all a man of great charachter and personality. Thanks to his mental strength he let all the critics he received, especially in his first season with Juventus, roll of his back, and he keeps a steady will to improve in training. Season by season, first with Conte, then with Allegri, he gave more and more safety and stability to Juventus defence, acquiring International experience and getting rid of some of his blemishes in the process.

He is 190 cms tall and he perfectly knows how to make count on the pitch his 82 kilos of weight and his physical strength. He is good in the air, a common trait in Juventus defence, which makes him very useful in coping against high balls towards the box and indirectly, in the pressing-game. Tipically, when Juventus pressed high on the opposing half, Vidal moved to the line of the forwards Tevez and Morata, pressuring the ball holder. The other midfielders marked their direct opponent, to close potential passing-lanes, with the primary object to recover the ball high, and with the secondary object to force the long ball, that Bonucci and Chiellini are usually likely to win. The aerial ability of Juventus defenders was crucial in the Bianconeri recent Champions League campaign, in which first the Schwarzgelben of Borussia Dortmund and then the Merengues of Real Madrid had to deal with the compactness and aerial dominance in the defensive phase of the 4-3-1-2 and especially of the 3-5-2 deployed by Max Allegri.

UEFA Champions League - Juventus vs. Real Madrid - Lo schieramento tipico del 3-5-2 in fase difensiva. Gli esterni si abbassano a formare una difesa a 5, lo spazio tra centrocampo e difesa si restringe man mano che ci si avvicina all’area e si cerca di dirottare il gioco avversario sulle corsie. L’esterno lato palla si sgancia per contrastare l’avversario col pallone tra i piedi, mentre gli altri componenti della difesa si compattano al centro per sfruttare la propria abilità nel gioco aereo.
UEFA Champions League – Juventus vs. Real Madrid – The classic positioning of Juventus 3-5-2 during the defensive phase: the closer they get to their goal, the less space they leave between midfield and defence. They try to force their opponents wide,  while the two wide midfielders/wingbacks shift to the defence in a 5-3-2. The fullback near-ball leaves his position to press the ball holder on the flank and the other 4 defenders group in the centre of the box to exploit their aerial ability.

Also thanks to Max Allegri’s 4 man defence, Bonucci improved in marking, one of the major weaknesses revealed in the previous seasons, often make worse by drops in concentration during the 90 minutes. Moreover, with the help of Juventus new manager, he made change idea to some of his mudslingers about the insinuation that he couldn’t play in a 4 man defence for a top-flight team.

On field, the main and most evident of his qualities is his footballing intelligence and tactical awareness, which allows him to predict opposing forwards movements and to take the correct defensive position in advance. Exactly his tactical abilities and his covering ones, were the reason why Conte tailor-made around Bonucci his 3 man defence, putting the Italian defender at the centre with his team-mates Barzagli and Chiellini to his sides.

Sometimes, Bonucci is labelled as “slow”, but even if its’ not as fast as Raphael Varane, it’s faster than you might think. Furthermore he can balance the lack of quickness of his legs with the speed of his footballing mind. When Juventus plays with the 3 man defence, Bonucci, as the central defender of the back 3, leaves his position less than Barzagli and Chiellini, but is reactive and when he leaves it he often recover possession.

Coppa Italia - Juventus vs. Lazio – A good example of Bonucci anticipation. Marco Parolo passes to Antonio Candreva, positioned between the lines but with his back turned to the goal. Bonucci foresees that Lazio winger will have to control the ball first and then turn around, so he immediately runs into him. In the meanwhile, Barzagli covers for his team-mate, while Chiellini marks Miroslav Klose. As soon as Candreva receives the ball, Bonucci tackles him and recovers the ball, passing the ball to Llorente right away. (click on the image to enlarge).
Coppa Italia – Juventus vs. Lazio – A good example of Bonucci anticipation. Marco Parolo passes to Antonio Candreva, positioned between the lines, but with his back turned to the goal. Bonucci foresees that Lazio winger will have to control the ball first and then turn around, so he immediately runs into him. In the meanwhile, Barzagli covers for his team-mate, while Chiellini marks Miroslav Klose. As soon as Candreva receives the ball, Bonucci tackles him and recovers the ball, passing the ball right away to Llorente (click on the image to enlarge).

He is not so strong in one-on-one situations, as clearly revealed during the recent friendly against Borussia Dortmund, when he was nutmegged by Marco Reus, on the way to BVB second goal.

However Bonucci it’s not only a very good defender, but he is the “ball-playing defender” par excellence, as previously stated in this article: a defensive playmaker role in which he is irreplaceable for Juventus. He is the defender, if there is one, that definitevely disproved the myth of the tall, big centre-back, that doesn’t have any technique. The right footed Bonucci is completely in his element when it’s time to play the ball from the back and, during build-up play, he is almost essential and involved as much as Juventus deep-lying playmaker Pirlo (or his back-up Marchisio). It’s not by chance the fact that Bonucci is almost the Juventus player who played more passes (2012) in the last edition of the Serie A, second only to Marchisio, who passed the ball 2146 times. Looking outside of Italy, his passes per 90 minutes stat (60,1) is perfectly in line with the equivalent la Liga 14/15 stat of Gerard Piqué, considered one of the finest ball-playing defender in European footbal, who averaged 65,3 passes per 90 minutes.

Bonucci passes per 90 min
This graph highlights the evolution of Bonucci’s passes per 90 minutes across his Serie A career, a stat consistently grown during his years with Juventus, before the stabilisation of the last two seasons. Also notice the minimum in 2010/2011, when Del neri was Juventus manager.

Bonucci combines his excellent technical ability with the exemplar psychological profile of the deep-lying playmaker: he reads movements of team-mates and opponents vey well, he always knows when it’s the precise moment to break opposing lines of pressure with a pass, he is very often at the right place at the right time and he has got an enviable composure with the ball at his feet. Playing alongside a defender compose like Bonucci, also helped Chiellini in growing his confidence with the ball.

Bonucci’s tendency to play the long ball is the most eye-catching of his fundamentals: only Pirlo attempted and completed more long balls than Bonucci (Long balls per 90 minutes -completed/attempted – A.Pirlo – 8.8 / 11.5; L. Bonucci – 5.6 / 9.7), for the Bianconeri in the 2014/2015 Serie A campaign.

With Pirlo already playing for his new MLS team, New York City FC, Bonucci will have to take further responsibilities during the build-up phase next season, like he already did this year when Pirlo was unavailable, with the help of Juventus “third” playmaker Claudio Marchisio. It’s remarkable how, during Juventus-Fiorentina, when the 2-1 Juventus defeat at the Juventus Stadium almost jeopardized the Bianconeri path in the Coppa Italia, the tactical key of the match was Mario Gomez man-marking Bonucci in build-up, with the other Montella’s midfielders alternating in marking Marchisio: an adjustment that caused a lot of problems for Max Allegri.

Other than tidy in his passes, he is also able in conducting the ball, as he shown well with the superb individual effort which preceded his goal in Juventus 2-0 Lazio (video here).

Even if the duties were similar, the build-up shape and the players involved were different from the 3-5-2 to the 4-3-1-2. In the 3-5-2, Bonucci was the deep vertex of the diamond set up together with Barzagli, Pirlo and Chiellini. The diamond was shaped near their penalty areea, and it was kept until the opposing half, when Pirlo was more free to roam, while the three defenders maintained their line near the centre circle, usually helped by the wingback opposite to the side where the game is developing. Another option was the direct pass to the forwards Tevez and Morata, with the long ball played by Pirlo, or by Bonucci himself.

Coppa Italia - Juventus vs. Lazio - Al momento del rinvio corto di Buffon, che può essere direzionato verso uno qualsiasi dei tre centrali, Bonucci, Barzagli, Pirlo e Chiellini si dispongono a rombo. I 4 avanzano con quest’impostazione fino al centrocampo, circolando il pallone tra loro per scampare alla pressione avversaria. In prossimità della linea mediana, Pirlo è libero di avanzare, mentre i difensori mantengono la linea alta.
Coppa Italia – Juventus vs. Lazio – When Buffon plays the ball short to any of the central defenders, Bonucci, Barzagli, Pirlo and Chiellini set up a diamond. The four move until the midfield, passing the ball between them to avoid pressure from the opponents. Once near the opposing half, Pirlo is more free to roam, while the 3 centre-halves keep the defensive line high.

In the 4-3-1-2, to maintain a numerical advantage in build-up, similar to the one given by the 3 man defence, Allegri’s Juventus implemented a mechanism very similar to the “salida lavolpiana”, described at the beginning of the article. Pirlo dropped in between the two widening centre-backs, setting up a triangle this time, with Bonucci on the right and Chiellini on the left,  while the fullbacks positioned themselves higher up the pitch. In this situation one of the other midfielders (if not the offensive midfielder) dropped deep to receive the ball. Ideally, if Tevez or Morata shifted closer to the midfield, in a no.10 position, was Vidal to move higher in the forwards zone

UEFA Champions League - Juventus vs. Real Madrid - Pirlo si abbassa fino alla sua area di rigore a ricevere palla, mentre i centrali si allargano formando un triangolo. I terzini ne approfittano per spingersi in avanti, mentre uno o più dei rimanenti centrocampisti viene incontro a ricevere palla.
UEFA Champions League – Juventus vs. Real Madrid – Pirlo drops near his penalty area, while the two centre-backs move wide, setting up a triangle. The fullbacks push higher up, near the midfielder line, while Arturo Vidal comes deep to receive the ball

Many of the Juventus footballers mentioned in this article, leaved Turin during the transfer market: Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez above any other. But if the adaptation of the newcomers, like Khedira, Dybala and Manzukic is still to be verified and while waiting for the new trequartista (whoever he will be), there is still a guarantee for Juventus: his defensive playmaker, Leonardo Bonucci.

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