He looked a little uneasy as he touched down in Turin on Wednesday and the deal was finally confirmed on Thursday night; Leonardo Bonucci returns to Juventus after just a season in Milan. This signing, possibly more so than the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, has generated so many comments and opinions among Juventus fans since rumours of Bonucci’s return started to circulate a couple of weeks ago. After his supposed acrimonious exit from Turin and the fanfare welcome and apparent riches in Milan, Bonucci now returns to Juve and faces questions about his integrity, character and motives.
To many, and most Juve fans would agree, he is one of the best footballing defenders in the world; one of style, leadership and determination, of anticipation and intelligence. Despite a relatively unhappy time in Milan, he would make any defence better than advertised and it cannot be argued he instantly makes Juve’s defence more solid. To bet on Juve to win the title check with the best bookmakers in the UK for the latest odds.
However, Juve’s defence, after an initial settling in period, performed better without him last season; the bare Serie A facts show Juve conceded less goals last season than the season before and the re-birth of Medhi Benatia at Juve showed him to be a more than adequate replacement for Bonucci; contrast the performances by both players when they faced off in the Coppa Italia Final in May. The end of the season brought Mattia Caldara back to Turin, Giorgio Chiellini was made captain after Gigi Buffon’s departure, and the outlook was bright and settled for the Juve defence. Now Bonucci’s return merely muddies the water; what of Benatia and Daniele Rugani? Neither will be happy with a time share or more minutes on the bench than on the field. Both need first team football for different reasons; Rugani needs game time to prove he’s not just another player who has failed to live up to the hype and Benatia, after a solid FIFA World Cup, will be looking to cement his place as the first-choice centre half, especially as his career reaches its twilight. It’s easy to point out the flaws in the deal, especially given the background and circumstances, but these selection problems are good for Max Allegri and Juve. After all rotation is the foundation of his Scudetto-winning teams and Bonucci, while disrupting the balance in Turin, will add some competition to the defence.
Speaking of Allegri, Bonucci must also have built some bridges between himself and the Juve management over the summer. He was dropped after a touchline debate between the player and manager during the Champions League tie in Porto in 2016 became heated. This according to reports, wasn’t the only time he fell out with Allegri. The alleged dressing room altercation during half time of the 2017 Champions League Final has never been confirmed, but due to the nature of Bonucci’s departure just weeks later many have drawn the conclusion that it is a very believable rumour. Especially when you consider just how bad Juve were in the second half; a huge drop off in performance and confidence after having been the better team in the first half.
The man nearly forgotten among the vitriol is Caldara, touted as the best Italian defender of his generation, he’s certainly showed the qualities of a modern goal scoring defender in the mould of Sergio Ramos. Gian Piero Gaspierini’s system at Atalanta has brought out the best in him over the past two seasons and Juventini were salivating at the prospect of him leading the Juve defence for the next decade. By using Caldara as part of the deal Allegri and Giuseppe Marotta are taking a huge gamble with the Bonucci deal, again, probably more so than with the signing of Ronaldo, as they must surely be hoping Milan will continue to tread water around round mid-table and Caldara, like we are seeing with Rugani, doesn’t realise his potential.
While Juve may have ultimately performed better in Serie A they lacked a little quality and depth in the UEFA Champions League, with Bonucci in the defence Juve made two finals and looked a massively imposing defence unit and it is this which Allegri has his sights on in the short term. The signings of Bonucci and Ronaldo have made it abundantly clear Juve have set out their stall to win the Champions League while they’re both still at the club. Bonucci will be determined to make up for a lost season with the Rossoneri and Caldara’s lack of experience at such a level is arguably one reason for the bemusing way his Juve career came to an end so soon after returning from Atalanta. However, one must think of the future. Bonucci is 31, Benatia, 31, Chiellini, 33 and Andrea Barzagli is 37 (of course Ronaldo, Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio are all over 30 too). If the Champions League curse doesn’t lift and Juve are left with an elderly backline, Caldara’s exit will be a huge mistake. If Juve were to lift the trophy it would still, for most, seem like too much a price to pay simply to ‘win now’.
The problem for most, me included, isn’t with Bonucci the footballer, it’s fair to say Juve missed his Franz Beckenbauer-like qualities of bringing the ball out of defence and sparking counter attacks, the problem is with Bonucci the man. Upon his arrival in Milan he was quoted as saying;
“To give 100 per cent I need to feel important, something that at Juventus was recently happening only in fits and starts”.
Only a huge egotist and narcissist, not to mention someone with the insecurity levels of an adolescent boy, needs to feel important. When you play for a team, that is exactly what you are, part of a team. No one is more important than the collective and many believe, with some justification, that he thought he had outgrown and become bigger than Juve.
It is easy to consider the transfer as a business deal, just to look at the balance sheet and appease the accountants, but it is much more than that. Bonucci lost so much respect and credibility after his Juve departure that any kind of return must be met by him with an unbelievable amount of trepidation. He disrespected the shirt and Juve’s unwritten values, namely; no one is bigger than the club and that if a player wants to leave then he can do so. He took those values to the absolute extreme and engineered a move away when the club backed Allegri over him. He instantly became the type of player Juve do not need, nor want; in it for the money and not the pride, respect or passion of playing for one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.
It’s time for Bonucci to perform on the pitch, to show he is part of the team again. That is the only way he can redeem himself, although for many Juve fans it wouldn’t be enough. For a few he is the returning hero, for most he’s nothing more than a mercenary. Bonucci already appears to have damaged his reputation at Juve beyond recognition and it is probably going to take a Champions League Final win to repair the damage he has caused. He’s not the only one who’s counting on it; Allegri, Marotta and company are gambling a lot on Bonucci’s smooth road to absolution as well.