Monday 27 January 2020

Here's why Antonio Conte spending €68m on Italy's star centre back would be a stroke of genius

Could Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci be on his way to Chelsea?
Could Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci be on his way to Chelsea?

Alistair Tweedale

Roman Abramovich is willing to sanction a world record bid for Leonardo Bonucci, but what's all the fuss about?

The Chelsea owner is looking to give Antonio Conte the necessary resources to take the club back to the summit the Russian expects them to occupy. The defence certainly needs improving at Stamford Bridge.

David Luiz has predictably not shored things up sufficiently since his move back to London, and the team look as desperate as ever for John Terry's leadership.

A switch to three at the back last week coincided with only their second clean sheet under Conte, but the Italian won't be reading too much into a 2-0 win at a threadbare Hull.

Thirty-five year-old Terry won't be around for a great deal longer and the summer transfer window - and Luiz's return in particular - has shown there is not currently a great deal of defensive quality available at a reasonable price. Hence this potential big money move for Leonardo Bonucci.

Conte used the three-man defence that served him so well in previous jobs for the victory over Hull, and he is going back to what he knows in more ways than one. Bonucci is a player he knows from his time at Juventus and in charge of Italy, and a player he knows he can trust.

Conte has become known in recent years for building exceptional defensive units. At Juventus he won three Serie A titles in three seasons, going unbeaten in 2011/12, setting an Italian record of 102 points in 2013/14 and conceding only 67 goals in 114 league games.

At one stage his Juventus side went nearly 13 hours without letting in a single goal - the seventh longest ever run of clean sheets in the history of Serie A. Since Conte departed, the defence he constructed, with Gianluigi Buffon in goal, broke the record, lasting nearly 1,000 minutes between goals conceded.

The man at the heart of all this success: Leo Bonucci.

Playing in the middle of a back three, Bonucci commands the defence, steering the ship and keeping a tight line.

Without the ball he prefers not to commit to challenges and as a result he is very rarely caught out. He picks and chooses his moments to great effect. In his 241 league appearances over the past eight seasons, Bonucci has won 73 per cent of his tackles.

At the same time he makes plenty of interceptions, with more than two per game, on average, over the course of his Juventus career.

Meanwhile, he has made only three errors leading to oppositions goals - or one every 80.3 games. By comparison, £47.5m Manchester City man John Stones, has made four such mistakes in just 84 Premier League games - one every 21 appearances.

As the central defender, it is often Bonucci's job to bring the ball out from the back and pick a pass, and he has taken on the 'quarterback' role in Turin since Andrea Pirlo departed for Major League Soccer.

He is a fantastic playmaker from deep, stepping out and spraying passes off either foot to start up attacks. His assist for Emanuele Giaccherini's goal against Belgium in Italy's Euro 2016 opener (also under the guidance of Conte) was inch-perfect and absolutely sublime, and it was no surprise to see Bonucci produce a moment of creative genius like that.

His passing success rate over his last eight seasons is truly extraordinary considering he attempts passes like the above. It stands at 86.6 per cent, and was as high as 90.1 per cent in the 2013/14 season.

Oh, and he can take a pretty good penalty, too. This was to equalise against world champions Germany at the Euros.

Juventus will take some convincing if they are to let Bonucci go, but money talks and as we continue to see, Premier League clubs are willing to spend lavishly in the hunt for success.

A world record fee may be required to convince the Italian champions, but Antonio Conte knows him better than any other manager and is well placed to decide that £60m is still a worthwhile deal. It looks like it might just be.

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