Football's greatest partnerships: Part 1 - The defender's defenders
On a warm Thursday evening in October 2012, Italy and Juventus centre-back, Leonardo Bonucci, was out with his kith and kin in the city of Turin. The Bianconeri defender was scouring for the latest stallion from the Ferrari stable in the nearby dealership when a ruffian attempted to mug him at gunpoint.
Calm as a millpond, the Viterbo native punched the daylights out of the thug and nearly chased down the poor guy who fled for his life. Bonucci had mugged the cojones off the mugger, who must’ve thanked the lords that he hadn’t encountered the more physical guys on either side of Bonucci at the Juventus Stadium.
There are four custodians in the home of La Vecchia Signora, situated on the borough of Vallette in Turin. One is Il Capitano, Gianluigi “Superman” Buffon, the Colossus between the sticks. Ahead of him, snuffing out all attacks and patrolling every blade of grass on this side of the half line, are Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Together, they are The Guardians of the Juventini Galaxy.
I distinctly remember a moment from the 2015-16 season at the San Siro. It was the first Derby D’Italia of the season and Juventus had gotten off to an unusually uncertain start against a confident Inter Milan side.
Soon enough, the paparazzi loving provoker of the Curva Sud Ultras, Mauro Icardi, was bombing down the left wing and into the Juventus box, squaring up to sidefoot the ball into the back of the net past Gigi Buffon. A split-second later, the ball had gone out for a throw-in and Icardi had gone out for a Juventus goal kick. He had flown past the touchline, unable to comprehend the severity of the Giorgio Chiellini treatment.
A laureate of an academic degree in economics and commerce from the University of Turin – he completed the degree when he was not busy rattling into strikers (his thesis topic was an analysis of the balance sheet of Juventus!) – Giorgio Chiellini is the vice captain of Juventus.
A graduate of AS Livorno, a club known as much for its left-wing politics as its football, it feels as if the “man who could mark three players by himself” as proclaimed by Walter Mazarri has been in black and white forever. Even his game feels part of the black and white era; in the age of ball playing centre backs who prioritise offence over defence, Chiellini is the throwback centre back.
Going back to San Siro that night, Mauro Icardi was the victim of another schooling, this time from the other end of the trident. Andrea Barzagli has never been the fastest footballer. However, there aren’t too many players who can match his speed in reading the game.
With Icardi galloping down the left wing again, Barzagli took his hand, walked him down the aisle and let him go. Sprawling on the ground, Icardi could do nothing but watch the grand old veteran coolly collect the ball and initiate a Bianconeri attack. It was old school defending at its finest.
A late bloomer, who made his name in the pink of Palermo, it was under Felix Magath at VfL Wolfsburg that the Tuscan made giant strides. Playing every minute for the team in his debut season at the Volkswagen Arena, Barzagli was the rock upon which the club built its scarcely believable charge to the Bundesliga title.
However, he rose to the pinnacle of his career at Juventus, where Antonio Conte transformed him from a decent defender to a world class one, reminiscent of the great Azzurri defenders of yore. He was no slouch with the ball either – a glorious assist for Sebastian Giovinco against Roma which began with a sombrero and culminated in a delightful through ball stands testament to this.
All this takes us to the pivot of the trio, to the man who punched the thug. Leonardo Bonucci is an exceptional footballer. If Barzagli and Chiellini may be accused (unfairly) of playing football that is too primal and archaic, it is because the duo have the luxury to do so. For pulling the strings in the middle with Scholes-esque vision is the hitherto unheralded signing from little Bari.
“Beckenbonucci” as La Republicca memorably dubbed him is as good at a scything ball as he is at a crunching tackle. The first line of the Juventus attack, Bonucci is arguably the greatest sweeper in the game today.
Pep Guardiola is hardly known for being effusive with compliments. The mercurial genius, who didn’t think much of Ronaldinho and Deco in his first stint at Barcelona, and recently opined that Sergio Aguero needs to improve his game, has set stratospheric standards of expectation that’s hard to live up to.
Yet, when the same darned man goes on record to say that someone is among his “favourite ever players”, one has no choice but take notice. Famed for his distrust of proper centre-backs (Yaya Toure, Joshua Kimmich, Xabi Alonso are all victims of the Guardiola defence experiment), Guardiola’s respect and admiration for Bonucci vindicates his standing in world football today.
Possessing very different attributes and coming from very different footballing backgrounds, it’s astonishing how B-B-C has become the pillar of strength for both Juventus and Italy. Antonio Conte, the engineer of the trio, built one of the greatest Serie A teams of the modern era from the back, where he had this indestructible, indefatigable, impenetrable wall to save many a day.
Andrea Pirlo, in one of the most interesting sporting autobiographies of recent times, reveals how Conte in his first speech as Juventus supremo told the underperforming team to “stop being crap”. From being crap to being unbeaten an entire season, Juventus enjoyed a remarkable surge in fortune, conceding a mere 20 goals.
And central to that great team letting in a stingy 0.52 goals per game was the trivote who were unheralded at the time. Decent footballers individually, Conte made them much more than the sum of their parts, fusing them into an immovable object that almost no unstoppable force could conquer. Not even Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid.
In a famous meme that was viral across fan circles prior to the 2014/15 Champions League semi-finals, Los Blancos were depicted as the benefactors of Lady Luck, as they “only” had to face Juventus, whereas Barcelona had to face mighty Bayern Munich. The champions of Italy had taken notice of the slight. Antonio Conte had stirred his men for the battle. Like Pirlo famously said, “When Conte speaks, his words assault you.”
Surprisingly, Barzagli didn’t start either leg. However, his two partners in crime played the games of their lives, bathed in blood, sweat and tears – literally – at the end of two high-octane clashes.
Bonucci’s desire to win was evident in the counter that led to Juve’s second goal at Turin as at the end of a full sprint from one box to another, he was the only man standing, with Marcelo, Morata, Carvajal and Tevez all lying on the battle-hardened turf.
Chiellini’s showing, on the other hand, has gone on to become the stuff of legend. The Italian, bloodied and battered after a headed challenge with Gareth Bale, continued to marshal the rearguard, famously winning an aerial duel against Cristiano Ronaldo, soaked in blood and swathed in bandages.
This was but one instance of the defensive masterclass that these maestros have put up. Countless others come into mind, including the famous victories built from the back against Belgium and Spain in Euro’16. The continental championships catapulted the trio into the limelight, finally gaining them the long deserved recognition they had never really gotten outside their homeland.
While Bonucci’s spectacular, Pirlo-esque long ball against Belgium and Chiellini’s goal against Spain gained the plaudits, the defensive nous of Andrea Barzagli, especially in the quarter-final against Germany, had purists harking back to the good old days of Italian defending.
At the end of the shootout in which the Germans edged the Azzurri, La Roccia poignantly broke down in a post-match interview, which reflected his burning desire to win even at the age of 35. Barzagli was a World Cup winner, who also had the Bundesliga, Serie A and countless other winner’s medals in his trophy cabinet. Yet, each defeat rankled him. Each failure pained him.
And this is what has made not just him, but the younger duo playing alongside him, so great. They simply hate to lose – the positive consequence of which is them putting in every sinew of their bodies in line every single game.
"We really did give everything. Unfortunately what we’re left with is defeat and in my view nothing will remain of all the good things we did. All that remains is disappointment and in a few years nobody will remember anything about this Nazionale that truly gave everything. We really enjoyed our time together and wanted it to continue. We’re sad." | Andrea Barzagli, after Italy’s QF exit in Euro’16.
Impending gloom arrives, however, in the form of Father Time. With Andrea Barzagli already deciding to hang up his boots for the Azzurri after the Euros, only to be convinced not to by the new manager of the national team, Giampiero Ventura, it won’t be long before the trio becomes the duo.
With Juventus preparing for the inevitable by grooming Daniele Rugani and the Nazionale doing the same with Alessio Romagnoli, Russia 2018 would in all probability be the last time that we see the celebrated partnership strut their stuff about together. Needless to say, the beautiful game would be all the poorer for it.
Till then, however, one can rest assured that the three adopted sons of the Old Lady of Turin will fight the hardest fights with the calmest minds. In an age where the game is undergoing a radical change in tactics, it is refreshing to cast one’s eyes upon some pure, no nonsense defending that bequeaths confidence upon the rest of the team. For no limit of tactical innovation is worth tinkering with the likes of Lucas Leiva and Aleksandar Kolarov at the heart of the defence, with all due respect.
Good centre backs are hard to find. Good central partnerships even harder. But to have witnessed three world class defenders dominating the game at their peaks side by side is a sight we’ve all been lucky to witness.
Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini aren’t just defenders. They are the perfect blend of the cerebral professor (Barzagli), the regista (Bonucci) and the aggressor (Chiellini) as the latter himself succinctly put it. They are the shining beacons and advocates of an art that is in danger of being overlooked in an era that is on the cusp of undergoing a major tactical revolution.
They are the defender’s defenders.