Leonardo Bonucci's Evolution as a Leader Key for Italy in Euro 2016

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2016

Leonardo Bonucci might be the game's best center back—and one of Italy's most important assets.
Leonardo Bonucci might be the game's best center back—and one of Italy's most important assets.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Six years is a long time.

In football—a sport that often marks time in four-year World Cup cycles—it's especially long. A lot of things can change in that period. Teams can rise and fall. Players develop, get hurt, regress, succeed or are ruined. Everything can change in six years.

No one exemplifies that better than Juventus and Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci.

Six seasons ago, Bonucci could not have been at a lower point. Now he's at the top of his profession—and his evolution could provide be key to how successful his country is at the UEFA European Championship.

If one were to write an article about things Juventus would like to forget about Bonucci, one of the biggest entries on the list would be that he started his career at archrivals Inter Milan.

The Nerazzurri brought him into their youth system from that of his hometown team, Viterbese, in 2005. In an ironic twist, he made his debut for the Nerazzurri on the last game of the 2005-06 season—right before the Calciopoli scandal that would send his future club into its darkest days.

The next season, he didn't appear in a single league game, although he did find the field in three Coppa Italia matches. He also led Inter's Primavera side to the Campionato Primavera championship.

Bonucci (in red) broke out at Bari at age 22.
Bonucci (in red) broke out at Bari at age 22.Massimo Cebrelli/Getty Images

During that 2006-07 season, Bonucci was set adrift in the choppy sea of Italy's now-defunct co-ownership system. Treviso bought half of his rights that January, and he spent 18 months there before Inter brought him back and loaned him to Pisa for another half a season.

After steadily improving, the summer of 2009 provided both a whirlwind and a breakout.

As soon as the summer 2009 transfer window began, Inter announced a blockbuster cash-plus-players deal that sent Bonucci, along with three other players and €17.7 million, to Genoa for Thiago Motta and Diego Milito. The next day, he was sold to Bari on a co-ownership deal along with four other players on various co-ownerships and loans.

Under Giampiero Ventura, he formed an incredible partnership in the center of defense with Andrea Ranocchia, one of the other members of the Genoa diaspora.  Halfway through the season, the Galletti boasted Serie A's best defense. Ranocchia was hurt around the Christmas break, and he missed the rest of the season, but Bonucci still helped lead Bari to a 10th-place finish.

The summer of 2010 saw both of Bari's defensive jewels hit the market. Inter, surprisingly, poached Ranocchia rather than bring back Bonucci, the player they were familiar with. Bonucci was bought by Juventus in a cash-plus-players deal that totaled €15.5 million.

He was immediately paired with Giorgio Chiellini, giving the Bianconeri the promise of a dominant defense. But it wasn't to be—at least not right away.

Most Juventus fans try to block the 2010-11 season out of their memories. Led by manager Luigi Delneri, the Bianconeri started the season well and were as high as second after a late-December win over Lazio. But after the winter break, they collapsed. They only won seven times in the new year, falling to seventh for the second year in a row as the ramifications of Calciopoli truly caught up with them.

Bonucci and Chiellini have helped form one of Europe's best defenses.
Bonucci and Chiellini have helped form one of Europe's best defenses.Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Bonucci did not play well. He regressed both statistically and from the eye test. According to WhoScored.com, he averaged 40 percent fewer tackles and almost 25 percent fewer interceptions than he did the year before at Bari. On the field, he looked awful. He was beaten consistently and capped the campaign with an embarrassing own goal against Genoa.

Juve fans looking for someone to blame for a second straight terrible season saw an easy scapegoat in Bonucci. The next season, it was assumed he would be the third choice in the middle behind Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, who had impressed since arriving in January of 2011.

Then something happened that launched Bonucci to stardom.

Faced with a lack of a competent left-back and few wingers to keep the 4-3-3 formation he had started the 2011-12 season with sustainable, Delneri's successor, Antonio Conte, took advantage of the fact he had three talented center backs on his roster and switched to a 3-5-2.

It was what Bonucci needed to break out. He slotted into the center of the trio and flourished. While still prone to the occasional mistake, he steadily improved. His new position also enhanced the one aspect of his game that was never a doubt: passing.

Bonucci grew up as a midfielder, and his distribution has always been with him. Even before his breakout over the last two seasons, you would be hard-pressed to find a better ball-playing center back.

Since Conte took over Juve from Delneri in 2011, Bonucci's pass-completion percentage in the league has never been below 86.4. He is particularly good at long passes. Going all the way back to Bari, in all competitions for club and country, Bonucci averages six long balls completed a game.  

That skill is invaluable. If his team is losing the midfield battle, or if an opening simply presents itself, Bonucci is capable of bypassing the midfield and setting up the forwards.

Take as an example the assist he made in Conte's first game in charge of Italy in September 2014. Bonucci took possession near the center circle and unleashed a long ball that went over everyone but Ciro Immobile, who easily rounded Jasper Cillessen and tucked home the game's first goal.

On a team as desperate for midfield help as Italy will be during the Euros, having a defender who can pass the way Bonucci can is invaluable. There has even been talk of him moving up to take a midfield role, and the Juve man recently told Rai Sport (h/t Football Italia) he was "intrigued" by the possibility.

It's unlikely Conte will go that route, but he will certainly rely on him to trigger attacks from the back.

Beyond what he does on the field, Bonucci has also developed as a locker-room presence. At 29, he isn't a young man anymore. He has played 274 competitive games for Juve in all competitions and has 56 caps for the national team. He's now a senator for club and country.

It hasn't always been that way. For a long time, Bonucci was a follower rather than a leader. He took his cues from the likes of Barzagli and Gianluigi Buffon. His focus would slip on occasion, leading to the concession of soft goals. His mind wasn't developing in time with his talent.

The prime example of this came in 2013, during the FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal against Spain. After 120 minutes of goalless football, both teams went six rounds in the penalty shootout without missing. Bonucci stepped up for Italy's seventh and the look on his face told everyone what the result would be. He ballooned the shot over the bar, and Jesus Navas ended the match with the next kick.

Bonucci's cool penalty against Inter showed just how much he has matured mentally.
Bonucci's cool penalty against Inter showed just how much he has matured mentally.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Compare that Bonucci with the one who showed up the last two times he has been in a shootout. When the 2014 Supercoppa Italiana went to spot-kicks, Bonucci stepped up for Juve's sixth effort and calmly blasted the ball into the top corner to keep the marathon going.

This March, after Juve nearly blew a 3-0 aggregate lead in the Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter, Bonucci stepped up for the deciding kick  He coolly made his approach and pulled up short, sussing out which direction goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo was going before rolling the ball in to send Juve back to the final.

The mental aspect of the game has finally caught up with what he can do with his feet. The mistakes that had been a regrettable hallmark of his game have all but vanished, and he's leading from the front. He has captained Juventus several times and even wore the armband for the national team in September after Daniele De Rossi was sent off against Norway.

The national team has its leaders, especially in the likes of Buffon. But in its depleted state, it needs all the spurring it can get.

Between his leadership in the locker room and his unique skill set on the field, Bonucci is arguably the best center back in the game. On a team that will rely on its defense in order to get into the deeper reaches of Euro 2016, he's worth his weight in gold.

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