Throughout Juventus’ dominance of Serie A over the last decade, some protagonists come to mind that have been pivotal to their success, most notably in central defence. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and of course, Leonardo Bonucci, all of whom have played a pivotal role in the Bianconeri’s success. This season, with Barzagli retired, and Chiellini limited to just 157 minutes due to injury, it was Bonucci who was the mainstay in Mauricio Sarri’s Juventus line-up making 25 out of 26 appearances in Serie A.
Mentioned by Man City manager Pep Guardiola as one of his ‘favourite ever players,’ it is no surprise Bonucci is a centre-back that is extremely comfortable on the ball, and possesses fantastic awareness, passing ability, and tactical understanding. Questions have been raised due to his age (33) and some performances he had during a brief spell at AC Milan, but this season, Bonucci has once again proved an integral part of a Juventus side which lie top of Serie A.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Leonardo Bonucci under Sarri’s tactics and unpick his contributions both in and out of possession in his role at centre-back for Juventus this season. Statistical data will be used to quantify his value to Juve when compared to other centre-backs in Serie A.
Role in possession
This season Sarri has adapted his preferred 4-3-3 system which was used just 16.8% of the time, to a similar 4-3-1-2 formation which was used in 61% of the games. Additionally, a 4-4-2 was used for 20% of games. Bonucci’s role has remained largely the same in these formations as he played in a back four at centre-back alongside highly coveted new signing Matthijs de Ligt, seen below.
Under Sarri, Juventus have adopted a possession-based game ranking second in Serie A for average possession per 90 with 57.9%, just behind Napoli. Bonucci plays a pivotal role for Juventus in building and creating the attack within the defensive and midfield thirds. Juventus often play out from the back and Bonucci’s composure on the ball and ability to receive in almost any position means Juventus can retain possession and play through the thirds. This is evident in the picture below where Bonucci stood on the edge of the D to receive whilst keeper Wojciech Szczęsny played a split pass between two Fiorentina players.
Bonucci is able to receive the ball on the half-turn and drive up the pitch (red arrow – ball movement during a pass, yellow arrow – player movement with/without the ball). Bonucci’s willingness to receive in tight spaces means passes which can break down the opposition press as evident above are a valuable option for Juventus during their build-up play.
Bonucci carries the ball up the pitch, advancing over 25m before releasing the ball to the open full-back on his left.
Bonucci’s receiving skills are coupled with his excellent passing ability and although he averages slightly fewer passes per 90 that first placed Koulibaly in regards to volume of passes, his 90.2% passing success rate is slightly higher. This is impressive considering the number of progressive passes Bonucci plays, placing him fifth in Serie A. Amongst the top five, he is the most accurate with an impressive 84% success rate. The diagram below shows the directions of Bonucci’s passing from different positions (black circles), in addition to the distance and accuracy.
From the diagram above we can see that Bonucci generally takes a ‘forward first’ approach when looking to find a teammate in the most advanced area possible. Here we can see that the vast majority of the rays in each position are green, illustrating 80% or more passing success rate. Notably, passing in the orange highlighting a drop in passing accuracy (between 50-70%), tends to be when attempting longer vertical passes which is understandable due to the high-risk nature of these passes.
However, generally, we can see the aggressive approach Bonucci adopts when in possession for Juventus especially in central positions in the midfield third with a significant amount of his passes being played forward.
The diagram below gives us a better understanding of who Bonucci commonly combined with and in what areas of the pitch against Inter Milan earlier this season. The circles indicate each players’ average position and the thicker the black line, the more the players connected during the game.
Here we can see Bonucci interacts most with centre-back partner de Ligt which could be expected. However, what is evident in the table on the right is the high volume he combines with players in more advanced positions such as Alex Sandro, creative midfielder Pjanić, Bentancur, and Rabiot. Penetrative passes played by Bonucci can be extremely dangerous as he plays through midfield to teammates who lie in between the lines taking multiple players out of the game as a result.
Penetrative passing – threading the needle
This analysis will now unpick some examples underlining just how dangerous Bonucci can be as he almost acts as a deep-lying playmaker with the ball at his feet. Amongst centre-backs, Bonucci ranks third in Serie A in progressive passes attempted per 90, however, the average progression of his passes (484.31m) is greater than both Fiorentina centre-back Ranieri (455.05m), and Atalanta centre-back Rafael Toloi (368.33m) who lie ahead of him.
In the image below we see Bonucci in possession in what seems like a fairly comfortable situation for Lazio. The Lazio player closest to Bonucci has good cover behind him from his teammate (both highlighted yellow) who is playing on a different line to him, reducing the chance that they can be split with a vertical pass.
Above, Alex Sandro, the Juventus left-back is positioned along the touchline to provide width. This would be a safer pass for Bonucci to play however it would most likely afford Lazio enough time to shift across and close Sandro down before he could advance significantly. As a result, the Lazio players are positioned compactly to avoid passes being played through centrally. Despite this, Bonucci sees an opportunity for a penetrative pass and accurately splits the two Lazio players.
Bonucci accurately finds Matuidi with a dangerous pass in between the lines. As a result, the two Lazio players which were directly in front of Bonucci are taken out of the game. Two Lazio players must come across to stop Matuidi turning and attacking through the Lazio central midfield. This subsequently frees up Sandro who can advance higher up the pitch to receive the next pass and possibly penetrate down the flank with more space. Bonucci’s tactical understanding and awareness mean he is always thinking one step ahead and every pass is a calculated decision to move or penetrate the opposition.
The picture above is another example of the penetrative passes Bonucci is able to play. His pass strikes through the heart of the Fiorentina midfield to find his teammate in between the midfield and defensive line. At first glance, Bonucci’s body position is facing centre-back partner de Ligt which may lead us to believe he will simply play a square pass across to him. This disguise that Bonucci creates lulls Fiorentina into a false sense of security.
Bonucci is always aware of what is in front of him and he intelligently reads the oppositions’ positioning. With his body still facing de Ligt, Bonucci expertly drives a pass straight through Fiorentina’s midfield catching them off guard.
His Juventus teammate now finds himself in a dangerous position with the Fiorentina midfield collapsing towards him and reacting to the danger. This subsequently frees up other Juventus midfielders and they can initiate an attack orchestrated by their playmaker Bonucci.
Calculated decision making
Bonucci’s awareness of his teammates’ and opponents’ positioning informs his decision-making on the ball. It seems behind every pass Bonucci plays, there is a specific intention with the end goal to penetrate the opposition and create scoring opportunities for his team.
Above, the ball arrives at Bonucci coming from right to left. The obvious option is to play away from pressure and into Sandro early. It is clear left-back Sandro is open to the left of him yet Bonucci decides to play back into Pjanić and into pressure. This forces Lazio to shift back to Juve’s right again.
Evident in the picture above, the Lazio team has now shifted further to the right giving Sandro even more space and an opportunity to position himself even higher. Pjanić bounces the pass straight back to Bonucci who is aware of where Sandro is. Bonucci’s understanding of the impact each of the two extra passes had on the opposition allows him to manipulate them until he picks his moment to penetrate with a through ball or progressive pass.
As the opponent has now been drawn away from Sandro, when the ball is played back to Bonucci, he instantly plays a progressive pass into space in front of Sandro to initiate an attack. His one-touch pass demonstrates his recognition of the space he has created on Juve’s left flank, and his decision to exploit it quickly as a result of his initial pass to Pjanić which drew Lazio over to Juve’s right.
The space created on the left flank by Bonuccis’ combination play with Pjanić is capitalised on with his quick pass creating a 2 vs 1 situation for Juventus with Ronaldo joining in the attack and Lazio scrambling across.
Defensive anticipation and positioning
In 2017, Bonucci was nominated into the FIFA FIFPro World XI and regarded as one of the best defenders in world football. As mentioned above, his in possession value plays a large part in this. Since then, Bonucci’s defensive displays have been questioned at times with some critics stating he is not the defender he once was.
This season, Bonucci ranks 96th in defensive duels per 90 averaging 3.63. This, however, can largely be dictated by the tactics implemented by each team. A defender who plays for a team which defends more often and has less possession may subsequently engage in more defensive duels. Importantly, when considering Bonuccis’ defensive duels, it must be noted that although he engages in fewer of them, this may be expected as Juve have the second-highest average possession percentage in Serie A. Additionally, his success percentage when engaging in defensive duels is a dominant 71.88%.
As Bonucci has grown older, speed is not something which he can rely upon and one of the reasons Bonucci maintains such a high defensive duel success rate is because of his defensive anticipation and positioning. By anticipating a forward pass early, Bonucci places himself into an advantageous position against the opposing striker before the duel has commenced, see below.
Above we can see a Lazio defender in possession who has not been pressed yet and subsequently has time on the ball. Before the Lazio defender plays the pass over the top, and whilst every Juventus player is facing the ball, Bonucci adopts a ‘side on’ position and begins to drop back in anticipation of the long pass giving himself a head start against the Lazio striker who begins to make the run.
As a result, Bonucci arrives onto the ball first (pictured above), positioning himself between the attacker and the ball, and can clear the ball away.
In the image above, Lazio has won the ball and within seconds they attempt to exploit the space in behind Juventus’ high line. Bonucci does anticipate this before the pass is made, but in this case, he does not drop deep enough and the distance between him and the attacker is much smaller.
The Lazio attacker is too quick for Bonucci and gets in behind him whilst his defensive partner comes across to assist. This gives Lazio more time on the ball and keeps their counter-attack alive. If Bonucci is to keep his place in the Juventus’ defence, his anticipation and positioning defensively is something that must be executed consistently as he does not have the speed to make up for any potential errors.
This season, with the absence of injured Chiellini, Bonucci has had to develop a new partnership with de Ligt and at times questions have been raised as to whether they are the best pairing defensively. Despite this, Juventus have conceded the second-fewest goals in Serie A this season and although ahead by a single point, Juventus still sit top of the table for yet another year. Additionally, the value Bonucci provides in possession is something that is arguably only matched by a handful central defenders in Europe and it is undeniable that he has been a large part of Juve’s success this season.