Have Juventus been successfully able to replace Leo Bonucci?
When Leonardo Bonucci announced that he would be joining fierce rivals AC Milan during the summer, it came as a shock to even the most religious followers of Serie A.
This marked the end of one of the best defences in the world as the trio of Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini- famously known as the BBC, would never take the field together again in a Juventus jersey.
When Antonio Conte took charge of the team in 2011, he changed the formation of the team to 3-5-2 to accommodate Bonucci in the defence, a defence that became the backbone of a team which went on to win a historic 6 Scudetti in a row.
“There’s so much Juventus in me, it’s a matter of heart and skin,” Bonucci explained earlier this year. “Every time I wear this shirt it gives me this incredible energy. I hope I can be important for Juventus, as Juventus is for me."
Fast forward a few months, Bonucci finds himself struggling to replicate his form at AC Milan.
And, for the first time in many years, Juventus look fragile in defense. So let us have a closer look at how Bonucci's departure affected Juventus and how the defence is shaping up in his absence.
What did Bonucci bring to the team?
To understand if Juventus have been able to cope up with Bonucci's absence, we need to first look into the qualities that he brought to the team. Bonucci was a ball playing centre-back whose job was to stifle opponents, retain possession and start counter-attacks.
Needless to say, he was the best at it. His ability to beat the first man and pass through the lines was second to none.
Keeping the technical aspect of the game aside, in order to really appreciate Bonucci, you had to look at the drive and organization he brought to the team week in and week out. He lived and breathed Juventus and gave everything for the team whenever he was called upon.
The aftereffect and immediate replacements
With the departure of Bonucci, Juventus suddenly lost an anchorman in the centre of the defence. And the replacements were Daniele Rugani, Mehdi Benatia and a currently injured Benedict Howedes, none of them who have specialized in that role.
As a result, coach Max Allegri was forced to switch the formation and go into the season with a new look 4 man defence. There were two problems: The specialist wing-backs have to play as full-backs now and which players should form the best centre-back pairing?
The Alex Sandro/Kwado Asamoah and Mattia DeSciglio/Stephan Lichtsteiner full/wingback pairings have been complementing well thus far and by the end of the season, the success or otherwise of this new system would have been seen.
Coming to the centre-back pairing, 22 games into the season, Allegri is yet to find the perfect one as he has toyed with all the combinations and hasn't settled on one yet.
With Barzagli and Chiellini on the wrong side of 30, Allegri cannot afford to play them twice every week.
Mehdi Benatia has been unconvincing whenever he has played and 3 of the 4 losses that Juventus has suffered this season has been with him in the defence.
Howedes is going through a bad spell with injuries as a torn muscle in his thigh will keep him out at least until the beginning of next year.
Daniele Rugani has looked assured whenever called upon and under the guidance of BBC, he has matured into an exceptional defender at such a young age.
He is yet to get a full season under his belt as a starter at Juventus and by the looks of it, he has to wait until next season for that.
Even though his attacking statistics haven't been as good as Bonucci's, his underlying defensive statistics have been exceptional.
As a defender, he is very much in the mold of Bonucci as he is a player who likes to keep it clean and cut out attacks with his positioning and intelligence rather than using his physicality and tackling.
He is a good distributor of the ball as he averages 75 passes per game compared to Bonucci's 55. He is better in the air too as he wins 2.4 duels per match compared to 1.3 duels won by Bonucci.
He does come with his drawbacks though as he cannot drive the ball forward and make those key passes as frequently. He also lacks the goal threat that Bonucci brought to the team.
Even though Juventus haven't been at their best in defence, it is only because of the exceptionally high standards they have set for themselves over the years.
Overall, the team has been performing well and as the season progresses, their strength in depth will help them perform better in the latter half of the season. They are through to the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League and they are just 2 points away from the top in Serie A.
With Rugani and Mattia Caldara (the on-loan centre-back whose performances are earning plaudits at Atalanta), Juventus have two very good young Italian centre-backs in their ranks. And if everything goes well, they could be the future Italian national team centre-back pairing.
To conclude, the departure of Bonucci has definitely affected the team in the short term. But, with able replacements in the ranks and Allegri as the coach, they will look to solidify their position as the best defence in Italy and arguably the world sooner rather than later.