As always, Serie A has delivered a campaign filled with excellent storylines, superb signings and a new array of star names to catch the eye. From Giuseppe Rossi’s incredible early form, to Gonzalo Higuain effectively replacing Edinson Cavani and Carlos Tevez looking to be the division’s leading scorer, many of these narratives have been written by attacking players.
While goalkeepers like Udinese’s Simone Scuffet and Mattia Perin have also caught the eye, at the back there has been a real break with tradition. The peninsula has long been famous for producing superb central defenders, but 2013-14 has seen a non-Italian become the real standout performer in that role.
The Juventus trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini may be continuing the tradition begun by men like Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile, but AS Roma currently boast both Serie A’s best defence and, arguably, its most in-form defensive player.
In a summer which saw the capital club make vast changes to their squad, the €13.5 million signing of Udinese’s Mehdi Benatia went almost unnoticed among the plethora of players moving in and out of the club’s Trigoria training ground. Yet ever since he arrived, the 26-year-old has helped to transform the fortunes of the Giallorossi defence.
Last season, Roma conceded 56 goals, a total surpassed by only three teams, as the side stumbled from one shambolic display to another. Rudi Garcia retained the same 4-3-3 framework, but began the season by instantly pairing the Moroccan international with Leandro Castan, a duo who would not disappoint their new coach.
With Morgan De Sanctis replacing the unreliable Maarten Stekelenburg in goal, the Giallorossi went on a remarkable opening run, winning their first 10 league games and challenging two-time champions Juventus in a way few teams have been able to do. They conceded only a single goal during that impressive streak, and Benatia was integral to their solidity, playing every minute of it and also weighing in with two goals.
He has netted a further three times since, but it has been his and Roma’s ability to shut down opposition strikers, which has been the most impressive aspect to their campaign. They have conceded just 15 times in the league this term, significantly less than any other side in the division. Only Juventus (9.8) allow opponents fewer shots per game than the Giallorossi’s 10, while Fiorentina (11.8) and Napoli (12.7) are the only sides to commit fewer fouls per outing.
At the heart of it all has been Benatia, who has won an average of 2.5 aerial duels per game according to stats site WhoScored.com, and his ability has helped Roma keep an astonishing 19 clean sheets in Serie A this season. The former Marseille man is also averaging 2.1 tackles, 2.6 interceptions and 6.3 clearances per match this term, leading the Giallorossi in the two latter categories.
Even more eye catching is a fact also highlighted by the same site, noting he has been dribbled past by an opponent just seven times in total, a testament to his ability to make the necessary challenge at just the right time. Benatia has also been neat in possession himself, completing 88.6 per cent of his average 47.7 pass attempts per game, while turning the ball over a mere seven times in his 29 appearances to date.
Benatia came to Italy from the French second tier, finally given a chance at the highest level by Udinese, a club famous for uncovering hidden gems from all over the world. He had been inducted into France’s Clairefontaine school before entering the Marseille academy, leaving without ever making a first-team appearance.
He fared a little better in loan spells at Tours and Lorient, eventually making his way to Ligue 2 club Clermont, then ultimately moving to Udinese two years later. The Friuli side picked him up on a free transfer back in 2010, and their former Sporting Director is not surprised to see him doing so well at Roma.
“He is an excellent player,” Fabrizio Larini told Il Sussidiario last September. “He has a good physique and quality as well. Benatia is also a natural leader,” he added (via FootballItalia). “Roma made a great signing by swooping for him and you can see the results.”
It is hard to argue with that assessment, and the player’s form has now unsurprisingly captured the attention of some of Europe’s truly great clubs. Manchester United and Bayern Munich have been joined in their pursuit of him by Barcelona according to reports in Spain (h/t FootballEspana), and his future is currently unclear.
But, while it remains to be seen if Roma will choose to cash in on him, what is abundantly clear is that Mehdi Benatia has quickly become Serie A’s best defender.