AC Milan’s spending this summer caused their fans huge excitement and anticipation ahead of the start of the new campaign. The headline arrival was the capture of Leonardo Bonucci from rivals Juventus. The signing signaled that Milan’s “project” was serious and that they could and would go after anyone given the opportunity. Bonucci’s arrival was also seen as a statement from Milan since the centre-back had been instrumental in the record-breaking six straight Scudetto’s won by Juventus and key in their progress to two Champions League finals in three seasons. Bonucci’s stock in Italy and around Europe had never been higher with him regularly mentioned as one of the best centre-backs in the world.
The start of the season has seen Bonucci bedded in quite nicely with two straight league wins in the first two matches as well as qualification for the Europa League group stage before that. Milan’s reality check came in the 4-1 loss at Lazio on Sunday when Ciro Immobile destroyed the Rossoneri and questions were raised concerning Milan. Those concerns are way too early to take seriously though as coach Vincenzo Montella basically has an entire new squad with ten additions as well as the emergence of young striker Patrick Cutrone. It’s a whole new team and they will take time to gel. One issue that already stands out though surrounds their star signing Bonucci and his quality as a defender in Montella’s system. Bonucci is a superb defender, but some glaring weaknesses are starting to appear which previously had been well-covered.
At Juventus, Bonucci had been surrounded by excellent defenders such as Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Stephan Lichtsteiner who make life easier for any teammate. Additionally, coaches like Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri are tactically excellent and provide organized defensive structures for their teams. Both coaches preferred having Bonucci centrally between Barzagli and Chiellini in a three-man central defence for long periods of their tenures at Juve. This setup meant Bonucci had the ever-reliable Barzagli to his right and the defensive-monster Chiellini to his left. The duo are without a doubt the two most underrated players of the last decade as both rarely ever put a foot wrong defensively either as part of a unit or in individual defensive situations. Their sense of positioning, reading of the game, calmness and concentration provided the platform for the more creative and largely free spirit of Bonucci to thrive. Bonucci’s passing and superb reading of the game came to the fore and attracted attention for the major public as the formidable Juventus side of the last six seasons wrote their names into history.
The moments in the past seasons when we’ve seen Bonucci leave his position to intercept passes, make tackles and stop attacks can’t be counted. His reading of the game is phenomenal and without a doubt deserving of all the praise he’s getting. But similarly to how Carles Puyol’s influence and mere presence was key in the development of the more expressive Gerard Piqué was the rock-solid platform and cover Barzagli and Chiellini gave him. Without their cover, Bonucci couldn’t have charged out all those times. Without their cover the times he timed it wrong would have resulted in goals against which would have seen his reputation damaged. It’s no exaggeration to say Barzagli and Chiellini was instrumental in the development of Bonucci.
Below is a selection of situations of how it could look when Bonucci charged out to regain possession for his team and stop opposition attacks with well-timed tackle. Note the cover provided by his partners, often Barzagli and Chiellini, when he steps out of the three-man defence.
This brings us to the current situation at Milan where Bonucci is without his partners for the first time in almost a decade. Montella has used a back-four in the opening three matches with Bonucci at centre-back with Mateo Musacchio. In Montella’s system both full-backs usually attack down either flank which means the centre-backs are left alone at the back when attacking. This means there’s a lot of space to be exploited if teams can steal the ball from Milan like Lazio managed. Lazio could then trash Milan with their counter-attacks. With Bonucci and Musacchio isolated at the back, Bonucci can’t be as intuitive as before and step up whenever he feels necessary. If he times the action just a fraction wrong Musacchio will be left all alone in his own half against on-rushing attackers. This happened with Lazio’s fourth goal at the weekend after Bonucci made a stupid decision to leave the defence to win the ball high up the pitch, he didn’t, Lazio countered, Immobile was 1 vs 1 with Musacchio and the striker teed up Luis Alberto’s strike. Bonucci didn’t have the cover he’s used too and his action left Milan way to open at the back. Watch the video below and see the difference when Bonucci doesn’t have adequate cover when he decides to leave the defence.
*Apologies for the highlighting of Bonucci in the second clip which misses him by a centimetre, sometimes technology doesn’t do what you want.
Bonucci isn’t a good defender in 1 vs 1 situations defensively. He dives in and takes risks. He isn’t quick. Without the necessary cover he’s an error prone centre-back. His qualities though are almost unique. Bonucci is is a superb reader of the game, a brilliant penalty area defender and a sublime passer. Montella needs to give Bonucci the cover he’s used too in order to get the best out of his star signing. While he won’t be able to partner him with Barzagli and Chiellini he can line up Alessio Romagnoli and Musacchio either side of him in a back-three. Two quicker defenders who can provide the cover to when Bonucci steps out of defence. The other option is to play his right-back deeper and narrower but that seems unlikely with Andrea Conti and Ignazio Abate his main options in that position. A change of system seems the best way to get maximum performance from arguably his best player.
When allowed to play to his strengths Leonardo Bonucci is one of the best defenders in Europe. Montella needs to give him that platform for his Milan to truly thrive.