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Leonardo Bonucci: The Soldier

Being confronted by an armed robber is the type of occurrence that generally offers only negative outcomes. Rationally, with the alternative being hurt or even killed, the immediate reaction would be to hand over whatever is asked for, without question. It’s the sort of traumatising experience that would seem impossible to prepare for, unimaginably difficult to deal with. The notion of confronting the robber wouldn’t cross the minds of most, yet this is exactly what Leonardo Bonucci did.

In 2012, while perusing the wares of a Ferrari dealership in Turin with his wife and son Lorenzo, the Juventus defender was approached by a man whose face was covered. The man pointed a gun at Bonucci and demanded that he hand over his watch. In the moment, with such high stakes, he would have been wise to agree to the assailant’s desires. Instead, remarkably, as the man went to take his watch, Bonucci punched him in the face, knocking him to the floor. To conclude the bizarre turning of tables, the robber then fled the footballer, whisked away as he was on the back of a scooter driven by an accomplice.

Some would call Bonucci’s actions brave, some stupid, others a combination of the two. Whichever view you take, it was decidedly abnormal. The whole affair only added to the growing aura around him,  something that has aided him to this day, where he proudly stands at the forefront of football’s finest players as the latest exceptional protagonist in that great Italian pursuit – the art of defending.

The words of none other than Pep Guardiola can be used for certification of the 28-year-old centre-back’s standing within the game. After Juventus’ 2-2 draw at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League second round tie last month, the Catalan coaching wizard felt impelled to comment on Bonucci. “One of my favourite ever players,” was his forthright declaration. It’s no surprise then that, on the back of such a grand statement, Manchester City, Guardiola’s next destination, have been linked with a summer move for the defender. They had better get in line.

As one of the central figures in a Juventus side that has dominated domestically like few have before, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Bonucci was once an Inter reject. After coming through the ranks at Viterbese, his hometown club, the Nerazzurri bought him, aged 18, in 2005 for a meagre £30,000. Evidently given the fee paid for his signature, he was far from the type of blue-chip prospect normally seen ascending through football’s tiers at that age. Yet, despite making his debut for the club that season, he would only feature three more times for the Milanese giants before loan spells in Serie B with Treviso and Pisa. Eventually he left for good in the summer of 2009, though this would prove to be a miscalculation on Inter’s part.

Bonucci made his way to Bari via co-ownership agreement with Genoa and had no problem shrugging off the pains of rejection. This particular adversity was, after all, comparably mild when considering the early doubts about his chances of a football career due to struggles with Osgood-Schlatter disease as a boy. “As a lad I missed five months of sporting activity to (OSD),” he told La Stampa in 2010. “It used to wake me up at night with pain in my knees.” He nonetheless forged ahead on his preferred path, unperturbed in chasing his sporting dreams.

At Bari, Bonucci forged a strong central defensive partnership with Andrea Ranocchia. Both were in their early-20s and gaining their first taste of Serie A, but they would relish the challenge. Together, they formed one of the most effective centre-back pairings in the league, though their coach at the time, current Torino boss Giampiero Ventura, had some intriguingly prescient thoughts on their respective qualities. He told Rai: “I think between the two, defensively speaking, Ranocchia is higher. But Bonucci has a greater personality that perhaps makes up for some deficiencies.” This differential in mental strength is something that would visibly manifest itself over the course of both players’ careers as they earned moves to bigger clubs. Bonucci would shoulder the increasing pressure; Ranocchia would falter beneath its weight.

Bonucci with Ranocchia, his defensive partner at Bari, on international duty.

Bonucci with Ranocchia, his defensive partner at Bari, on international duty.

When Bonucci joined Bari it just so happened that a budding young coach had only recently departed. Antonio Conte had guided the Galletti to promotion to Serie A but left soon after with the expectation that he would be hired as Claudio Ranieri’s replacement at Juventus, for whom he had starred as a player. Conte would eventually get the job two years later, after the unsuccessful interludes of Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni and Gigi Del Neri, The previous summer, Bonucci had joined Juventus, becoming one of the first signings of a new era. He was also their most expensive capture at the time, with the Bianconeri paying Bari £11.63 million for his services.

Playing for a Conte-managed side is widely believed to be one of the more intense experiences on offer as a professional footballer. His steely glare and capacity for explosive touchline tirades can be unsettling, so much so that even Andrea Pirlo, a player who became an icon specifically for his unruffled look under close scrutiny from opposition midfielders, was at times flustered by the coach during his time in Turin.

In his autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, Pirlo wrote, “If I could go back in time, I’d change only one thing: I wouldn’t pick the spot next to (Gianluigi) Buffon in our dressing room. It’s the one right in front of the door, and the most dangerous spot in the whole of Turin, especially at half-time. Even when we’re winning, Conte comes in and hurls against the wall (and thus my little corner) anything he can lay his hands on, almost always full bottles of water … It’s really quite a rage.”

To thrive under the strain of Conte’s ruthless gaze takes a high level of mental fortitude. Bonucci excelled, however, thanks to some strange methods of psychological training. The centre-back began working with a motivational coach, Alberto Ferrarini, while on loan at Treviso. Ferrarini utilised some unusual practises, which he alluded to in a Facebook post in September 2014. “Over the years I took Bonucci into my basement. Underground. In the dark,” he wrote. “There … I offended him in every way possible. I judged him. I insulted him. If he made even the slightest attempt to glance at me, he’d receive a punch straight to the stomach. The objective? To win over judgement, so Leo would always be focused and ignore everything else … That’s how I (made) him into a soldier.”

tc bonucci ferrarini

Bonucci relaxes with Ferrarini, who was previously his personal motivator.

The military theme is one Bonucci often referred to, a clear statement of his intentions to become a stoic, unquestioning defender of the Juventus colours, one of Conte’s henchmen. When asked about his time playing for the 46-year-old, who is now the manager of the Italian national team, he said, “(Conte’s) arrival was a godsend. We were real soldiers in his service.”

Things have changed in recent years. In 2014, Conte left his Juventus post for the Italy one. Then, last summer, Bonucci parted ways with Ferrarini. Though, by that time, he had already been transformed into one of the most rugged, uncompromising defenders in the world.

One of the hallmarks of Conte’s Juventus was a 3-5-2 shape, a tradition that Massimiliano Allegri has continued with, albeit to a lesser extent, since he took charge in 2014. Bonucci has been integral to this system, playing at the heart of the three-man defensive line as the Bianconeri have marched to four successive Scudetti. He was just as vital in last season’s run to the Champions League final. Along the way, he has produced moments of brilliance as well as regular ninety-minute masterclasses in tracking an opponent, covering team-mates and well-timed challenges.

The most recent of these elite defensive displays came in Juventus’ 1-0 win over Napoli on 13 February, a victory which saw them return to the top of Serie A for the first time this season, overtaking their Neopolitan title rivals in the process. Up against arguably European football’s deadliest number nine at the time, Gonzalo Higuain, Bonucci breathed fire, steadfastly refusing to offer space to his in-form opponent. The Argentine finisher was left isolated and frustrated, unable to free himself of his relentless marker. The moment of the match came when, after a cross from the right seemingly presented Higuain with an easy scoring opportunity, Bonucci stuck out a toe to poke the ball out of harm’s way. It was a breath-taking piece of last-gasp defending.

It would be misleading only to concentrate on the purely defensive aspects of Bonucci’s game, however. A big part of what makes him so admired is his ability to build moves from the back. He has always had a predilection for having the ball at his feet, something he admitted to La Stampa. “Since I was (young) I would love to dribble past opponents with a dummy,” he said. “That tendency got even stronger under Giampiero Ventura at Bari, as we never threw the ball away. These technical flicks and tricks come naturally to me and I don’t really think about them. It is a characteristic of mine, but I must try to limit it.”

The fact that Bonucci has to consciously avoid over-playing gives an insight into his approach. It would be easy to associate him, with his buzz cut and talk of being a soldier, with a less progressive attitude, but there is no doubt he belongs to the classier category of centre-back. The same could be said of his left-sided partner Giorgio Chiellini, a flat-nosed battler with a proclivity for the dark arts, but one who is just as happy bringing the ball deep into opposition territory in search of creating a free man as he is roughing up a striker with a meaty slide tackle. Both he and Bonucci are key to Juventus’ underrated possession game, an aspect of the team’s play that frequently goes unnoticed.

Bonucci has become a talismanic influence for the Bianconeri not just because of his defensive actions or his role in the build-up play. He also pops up with goals at crucial junctures, such as his driven volley from outside the penalty box to seal a 3-2 win over Roma last season. Before that game, he spent three hours in his hotel with Ferrarini, who finished the session by giving Bonucci garlic sweets. According to Ferrarini, “soldiers hundreds of years ago ate garlic to remain strong, healthy and lucid in battle. Leo is a soldier.” Aside from the trite fighting talk, there was another, more underhanded reason for the gesture. “I told him to breathe in the face of Gervinho and (Francesco) Totti … The most important thing was to achieve the objective, to win.”

If Bonucci’s smelly breath that night was a reminder of the dark arts that he, like Chiellini, has mastered over time, his sensational match-winning strike was an affirmation of his refinement. And his comfort with the ball, not to mention his emotional resilience, was once again on show more recently as Juventus hobbled beyond Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-finals. Tasked with taking the winning penalty against the club who once deemed him expendable, Bonucci stepped up and confidently ushered the ball home after a slight stutter to throw off the opposing goalkeeper, Juan Pablo Carrizo. It was an outrageously cool spot kick.

This ease on the ball is something that correlates closely with the real Bonucci. Aside from the occasional confrontation of armed robbers, he is a quiet family man, tending to eschew the headlines and limelight that usually attract famous sportspeople. His wife, Martina Maccari, who he married in 2011, revealed that his hardened footballing persona is left on the field of play, saying: “As for his personality at home, he is a lot softer than he is on the pitch.”

It is tempting to suggest that Bonucci’s serene family lifestyle translates across to his composed play in possession. His passing range is outstanding for a central defender. Along with his simple yet effective ball circulation with Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, the third man in Juventus usual three-man defensive line, there are the focused, sharp penetrative passes into midfield, breaking opposition lines in the process. Then there are his judged, lofted diagonal balls into wider areas.

Few centre-backs in Europe can compete with Bonucci in this area. For context, he has made as many key passes this season (12) as Mats Hummels, Toby Alderweireld and Gerard Pique have put together. With eight in 17 Bundesliga appearances, Jerome Boateng has a higher rate per game, though it’s worth taking into account the fact that he plays for Bayern Munich, a team whose possession game is of a higher level than Juventus’. Bonucci’s assured touch and ball-playing qualities have also seen him compared to a Bianconeri legend.

 Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea was an elegant libero.

Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea was an elegant libero.

Giovanni Galli was a goalkeeper for Fiorentina and AC Milan in the 1970s and 80s, as well as an Italian international. On national team duty he shared a defence with the late, great Gaetano Scirea. At a time when calcio was emerging from the days of Catenaccio into a more proactive outlook, Scirea’s languid passing and fluid ball skills fitted right in. He was an elegant libero who flitted around the pitch, helping to create angles and opportunities for his team-mates. While Bonucci’s movement is more conservative, primarily because he is not a libero, Galli feels he compares well to his renowned predecessor, saying: “Bonucci … has the personality and coolness to handle situations, and is also seen in offensive raids. He plays the ball more and seldom gets agitated … for me he has the qualities to become the new Scirea.”

Scirea was a core member of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus side, a team that won multiple domestic titles and a European Cup in 1985. Bonucci could make it five Scudetti in a row this season, but it remains yet to be seen if he, like Scirea, will one day hoist aloft the trophy of European football’s most illustrious club competition. His chances of doing so this year look bleak given Juventus travel to Munich tonight to play a supreme Bayern side with the disadvantage of having conceded two away goals. Furthermore, in addition to the absence of both Claudio Marchisio and Paulo Dybala, they are also set to be without Chiellini. As a consequence, Bonucci’s trademark composure will be a necessity if they are to have any chance of progression.

He doesn’t seem worried about assuming the responsibility of being his team’s leader, though. “It’s going to be a brilliant match,” he told Juventus Television. “We know they’re strong, but they also have some weak spots, and we’ll try to hit them there.” As ever, adverse circumstances won’t faze Bonucci. In fact, if history tells us anything, it is that, in some perverse way, he will probably enjoy the game. He has successfully stared down rejection, armed robbers and mental demons – defending against Bayern is likely to be nothing more than a fun challenge for this soldier.

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