How a Once-Average Andrea Barzagli Has Become One of the World's Best Defenders

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How a Once-Average Andrea Barzagli Has Become One of the World's Best Defenders
Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Andrea Barzagli is among the best defenders in the world.

In a footballing world littered with hyperbole and superstar ego, there are countless column inches filled with such bold proclamations, most of which are easily dismissed and waved away. Yet when it comes to the Juventus central defender, his form continually proves that to simply be a statement of fact.

To understand just how great he has become, it is important to know his journey to Turin, to see what made him the player he is today. His career began with fourth-tier club Rondinella back in 1998, from there he bounced around the lower divisions, until finally making his Serie A debut with exciting newcomers Chievo in 2003.

Twelve months later he moved again, this time to Palermo, where he would establish himself as an above-average defender and an infrequent member of the Italy squad. Barzagli would go to the 2006 World Cup as the fourth-choice centre-back, but injury to Alessandro Nesta and the suspension of Marco Materazzi saw him earn vital playing time.

He was superb when coming on as a substitute against Australia but was rarely tested in the quarter-final against Ukraine before returning to the bench. Two more average seasons in Sicily would follow before Euro 2008 came around.

Injury to Fabio Cannavaro meant he was chosen to partner Materazzi in the opening game against the Netherlands, and it would prove to be a disaster. The Azzurri were swept aside 3-0, and Barzagli’s performance was so poor he would make just one substitute appearance for Italy over the following three seasons.

Just days later, a shocking move to Wolfsburg was announced, the Bundesliga outfit grossly overpaying for his services. Despite winning the league title in his debut campaign, he never looked like an €11 million defender during his time in Germany, fortunate to benefit from his side’s wonderful attacking trio.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Edin Dzeko (26 goals, 10 assists), Grafite (28 goals, 11 assists) and Zvjezdan Misimovic (seven goals, 20 assists) would fire Felix Magath’s side to glory but would collapse the following season. Limping to an eighth-place finish, Barzagli would eventually lose his place in the side and be sold to Juventus for just €300,000.

His first six months saw him make little impact on an already doomed Bianconeri, themselves struggling to a second successive disappointing season. Gigi Delneri would pay the price, replaced the following summer by Antonio Conte, a man who’s arrival would transform the fortunes of Juventus and many of their players.

Perhaps no reputation has improved as much under the coach’s guidance than Barzagli, now turning in consistently flawless performances for club and country. He is completely unrecognisable from the error-prone player seen at Wolfsburg and has an integral part of the all-conquering Bianconeri over the past two-and-a-half seasons.

In 135 appearances he has scored just once, the whole stadium celebrating his penalty against Atalanta on the final day of the 2011-12 season. Allowing him to take the spot-kick was his team-mates' way of saying thank you, as he became the last first-team regular to find the back of the net in that remarkable unbeaten campaign.

Barzagli had been much more concerned with making scoring against Juventus an impossible task, averaging 1.8 tackles, 2.6 interceptions and 5.1 clearances per game according to WhoScored.com. Perhaps even more remarkable is that during 35 appearances that season, he committed just 23 fouls and received just three bookings.

That season, Juve boasted the best defensive record, had the most clean sheets, the longest winning run, the fewest number of yellow cards issued and finished nine points clear of closest challengers Napoli. The significance of those statistics pales in comparison to the fact the Bianconeri were once again league champions—their first title in six long years—largely thanks to their incredible defence.

He has continued that excellent form, averaging 1.5 tackles and 1.8 interceptions this season while displaying the same excellent technique that has become a hallmark of this Juventus team. Alongside Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Barzagli makes 63.7 passes per game at a completion rate of 90.7 per cent.

His commanding performances in that formidable trio have seen him nicknamed “La Roccia,” and he is undoubtedly the rock on which the current Juventus defence is built. Once distinctly average, now Andrea Barzagli is among the best defenders in the world.

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