In Serie A, teams have quickly learnt that to stop Andrea Pirlo is no longer enough. While many sides have man-marked the midfield maestro in an attempt to slow Antonio Conte’s all-conquering Juventus, coaches on the peninsula have recognised that Leonardo Bonucci must also be pressured.
Over recent seasons, the former Bari man has capitalised on the space behind his Azzurri team-mate to carve out a niche as one of the world’s finest ball-playing central defenders. As Remi Garde continued the trend of shackling Pirlo in the first leg of Lyon’s Europa League quarter-final against the Bianconeri, their negligence when it came to Bonucci would prove ultimately costly.
At the full-time whistle, the 26-year-old had not only scored the winning goal, but he had enjoyed more touches (117), while completing (83) and attempting (103) more passes than any other player on the pitch, according to stats site WhoScored.com. Having also chipped in with the only goal of the game, no player had more impact on the game than the Juve No. 19.
It was the kind of performance which led to comparisons with former Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer, and it was one he repeated last night in the return meeting. With Pirlo once again negated by a man-marker, it would be Bonucci who stepped out of defence to share the creative burden.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this was the space he was given by the French side, who apparently were left unaffected by the defender’s previous contribution. As the below image—taken from only the third minute—shows, Bonucci was not only allowed time in which to collect the ball but also to advance to the halfway line without any defensive attention.
From that much-higher position, Juventus were able to condense the field and increase the pressure on the visitors. What makes this passage of play even more noteworthy is that the recipient of the pass was Carlos Tevez, the Argentinean turning and running into the heart of Les Gones’ defence.
Corentin Tolisso was left with no option but to foul the striker right on the edge of the box, gifting Pirlo with an opportunity to take a strike at goal. Needing no second invitation, the former Milan man stepped up to curl a perfect effort over the wall and beyond stranded goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.
While Pirlo rightly earns the plaudits for what was his sixth goal of the campaign—with each coming from a similar set-piece scenario—it was undoubtedly Bonucci’s playmaking ability which originally created the chance. He would continue in the same vein for the duration of the tie, enjoying 129 touches, a total of 48 more than any other player on the pitch.
His 116 passes (shown in the above image) were also a game-high—with Pirlo second on just 59—but he would contribute much more than just volume, creating two scoring opportunities for his team-mates while adding one tackle, two interceptions and five clearances, according to WhoScored. It was a continuation of his excellent campaign, where injuries to regular sidekicks Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini have made him the only constant presence in the Juventus back-line.
His continued selection is a far cry from his early outings in the famous black and white stripes of Juventus, blamed by many for some of the team’s problems in the 2010-11 season under Gigi Delneri. As the team limped to seventh place, Bonucci lost his place to Barzagli and many expected him to be sold to Zenit St. Petersburg, as per FootballItalia.
Yet he remained, and he was transformed as Antonio Conte switched to a back three, a move which brought his playmaking ability to the fore, his passing statistics making a huge leap as a result. WhoScored shows he has averaged 1.7 tackles, 1.7 interceptions and 3.9 clearances whilst completing 90 per cent of his career-high 61.4 passes per match this term.
He may not be the most high-profile member of the Azzurri squad headed to Brazil but should Cesare Prandelli opt to field him, Italy’s opponents would do well not to ignore Leonardo Bonucci the way Lyon did here.