The lasting impact of Antonio Conte’s tenure on the Juventus bench shouldn't be underestimated. When he returned to the Italian giants in the summer of 2011, the former captain took over as coach seven years after ending his playing days with the same club. He was a relentless midfielder who wrung every last ounce of talent from himself on the field, and did the same to those now charged with wearing the club’s famous black-and-white striped shirts.
“When Conte speaks, his words assault you,” Andrea Pirlo (sort of) wrote in his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play. “They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within you.”
Having stumbled to two consecutive seventh-place finishes, the Bianconeri subsequently won three league titles, with Conte then moving on to enjoy a similar impact with the Italian national team.
The Azzurri are yet to lose a competitive match during his tenure and comfortably despatched pre-tournament favourites Belgium in their opening game of Euro 2016. Chelsea are hoping their new boss can have a similarly galvanising effect when he lands at Stamford Bridge later this summer – not least if he can tempt Bonucci along for the ride.
Yet while Conte will undoubtedly bring the same frenzied and zealous approach to the Premier League, he will not have the three-man defence ahead of Gigi Buffon that his recent success has also been built upon.
It was the Lecce native who first fielded Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini together, drilling them until they moved in perfect unison, forever shuttling back and forth in perfect harmony. Barzagli – a World Cup winner in 2006 – and Chiellini have long since been highly regarded man-markers; those reputations have only been enhanced in France, the duo having combined to effectively neutralise Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“We know each other perfectly well having played together so well at Juventus, and when we get to the national team we don’t have to practice too many defensive movements,” Bonucci said in a recent interview. “Giorgio [Chiellini] and Andrea [Barzagli] are two great champions, they can be very aggressive when we play with a three-man defence, while my role is to cover them when attackers press us.”
“They’re two bulldogs,” he continued. “Definitely among the best defenders in the world.”
Yet there is little doubt that Bonucci should be considered that same class. Emerging over the past two seasons as a thoroughly accomplished player, he has proven equally adept at breaking up opposition attacks or helping his side launch their own.
Indeed, it was his sharp passing that caught the eye last week, a beautifully weighted ball from the centre circle picking out Emanuele Giaccherini's run between Belgium defenders Toby Alderweireld and Laurent Ciman. Attacking midfielder Giaccherini fired a shot beyond Thibaut Courtois to give the Azzurri the lead and they never looked back – unlike Juventus idol Alessandro Del Piero.
“You never used to play passes like that to me,” he said to Bonucci shortly after the final whistle, the ex-Bianconeri captain interviewing his former team-mate for Sky Italia. “That's because you never used to make those kind of runs,” came the light-hearted response. There was, however, so much more to Bonucci's performance than that laser-guided assist.
With Conte setting up Italy perfectly from a tactical standpoint, Belgium attacks constantly broke down in the face of the Azzurri defence, with Bonucci playing a key role once again. The 29-year-old made one tackle, four interceptions, five clearances and committed just one foul as he helped Barzagli and Chiellini shut out Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne in the 2-0 victory.
He turned in an equally accomplished display just four days later against Sweden, where – with the Azzurri enjoying far more possession – his superb range of passing came to the fore.
In the first game he connected with just 27 of his 34 attempts (79.4%), but in that second outing Bonucci completed 62 of his 75 passes (82.7%), drawing comparisons to great sweepers like Franz Beckenbauer. “[Alessandro] Nesta was always the player I looked up to, but now everybody calls me ‘Bonnie-Bauer’ – even the fans,” he explained to reporters last week. “I get messages on Twitter about it. They make me smile, but to get to that level I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
That may be true, but it didn't stop Pep Guardiola calling Bonucci “one of my favourite ever players” after his Bayern Munich side took on Juventus in the Champions League. That is high praise from a man so synonymous with possession-based football, and who loves midfielders who can play the right pass every time they receive the ball.
Italy’s new No.10
Bonucci's consistent brilliance has seen him emerge as a potential target for both Guardiola’s Manchester City and Conte’s Chelsea, but it is no surprise to learn that the in-demand Italian began his career playing further up the pitch. “For many years I played as a central midfielder – that’s why people consider me a defender with good feet,” he said in an interview earlier this year, revealing that a Viterbese youth team coach was the first to field him at the back.
He has learned to balance that with defensive diligence and tactical awareness, blossoming into an elite defender among the very best at this summer’s tournament. Yet with Marco Verratti injured and Andrea Pirlo left out, his playmaking has been even more important than usual.
With the likes of Marco Parolo and Thiago Motta more comfortable hunting down opponents than contributing to the attack, Bonucci – who currently wears the No.19 shirt for club and country – is arguably the most incisive passer among Italy’s 23-man squad.
“I never wore the No.10 because I would’ve gotten too big headed,” he joked, “but in the end, one plus nine does equal 10 so I guess I did end up wearing it...”
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