“Did you really think we could come here and dominate for 90 minutes?” he asked, “Against a team with [Paul] Pogba, [Mario] Mandžukić, [Álvaro] Morata, [Gianluigi] Buffon and [Leonardo] Bonucci – who is one of my favourite ever players”.
It was after his Bayern Munich side had just let a 2-0 lead slip in a Champions League tie against Juventus that Pep Guardiola made this admission. A surprising declaration from a man so identifiable with free-flowing attacking football to single a defender out as one of his favourite every players, which is huge praise in itself when it comes from someone as seasoned as Guardiola. Leonardo Bonucci is blessed with a natural footballing ability and was nurtured to keep his cool, in many ways he is the perfect Pep defender, but why, at the age of 29, has it taken him so long to be noticed?
In his teens, Bonucci had gone through the ranks of his hometown club, Viterbese, before being picked up at the age of 18 by Serie A side, Inter Milan. He struggled at the Nerazzurri, his lapses in concentration made him error-prone and he failed to impress even in the youth sides, managing only a single league appearance for the first-team in his two years there as he was swiftly moved out on loan to Serie B sides, Treviso and Pisa. Despite playing more regularly in the lower league, he was ultimately underwhelming and Inter finally decided to let him go for good. Bonucci then made his way to the recently promoted Bari through a co-ownership deal struck up with Genoa.
The Bari evolution
Putting his past quickly behind him, Bonucci came up to an important stage of his career where he was mentored by the highly influential coach, Giampiero Ventura. Under the newly promoted Azzuri boss, Bonucci was thrown into the deep end to form a sturdy and fresh partnership with fellow youngster Andrea Ranocchia. Although, Bonucci was still taking the same risks and playing the same way he always had done, he was making significantly fewer mistakes – a dramatic improvement that Ventura can partly take credit from.
Leonardo had high praise for his former Bari boss and I can imagine he will be delighted to reunite with him for Italy in the near future. “He [Ventura] had improved me as a player and as a man”, Bonucci confessed in an interview in 2014. The Juventus man then went on to say that despite feeling that he had been thrown into action too soon, he was consistently comforted with compliments after the games that helped him relax on the pitch. Between player and manager, they trusted and believed in each other, this is the relationship which led Bonucci to have a really solid season in the Serie A, where he helped Bari reach a respectable 10th place finish. And it was after this impressive year that Juventus took no time in splashing over €15,000,000 for his services in the Summer of 2010.
Ventura held a formidable pair in defence and although Bonucci would go on to succeed his partner, Ranocchia, later on in his career, it was the latter whom Ventura had rated the higher of the two during their time at Bari. “I think between the two, defensively speaking, Ranocchia is higher. But Bonucci has a greater personality that perhaps makes up for some deficiencies,” he told Rai in 2010. It seems he was correct in saying this, Ranocchia failed to live up the heights expected of him whilst Bonucci developed to be a fearless five-time Scudetto winner who thrived under pressure, this mental strength he possesses can be mainly put down to one man – Alberto Ferrarini.
Alberto Ferrarini; the man who mentally moulded Leonardo into a soldier
Since 2007, Alberto Ferrarini had been helping Bonucci as his self-proclaimed motivator. He preferred this term over ‘psychologist’ or ‘mental coach’, but it was clear that his methods of madness had gotten into the Italians head. From Treviso to Juventus, he followed Bonucci for eight years and the pair had worked together through strange one-on-one practices in order to mentally train and torture the defender, these practices were explained in a Facebook post during September 2014 by Ferrarini himself.
“Over the years I took Bonucci into my basement. Underground. In the dark,” he wrote. “There … I offended him in every way possible. I judged him. I insulted him. If he made even the slightest attempt to glance at me, he’d receive a punch straight to the stomach. The objective? To win over judgement, so Leo would always be focused and ignore everything else … That’s how I made him into a soldier.”
Alberto Ferrarini played a huge part in creating Bonucci’s impressive personality and a confrontation with an armed robber at a Ferrari garage in Turin was the embodiment of Ferrarini’s work. In 2012, accompanied with his wife and son, Lorenzo, Leonardo was threatened by a masked-man to give up an expensive watch at gun point and what happened after that was only something you hear about in the movies. Bonucci responded, whether stupidly or bravely, maybe a combination of the both, with a punch to the thief’s face, which in turn sent the aggressor to the ground before he fled off on his electric scooter. An act that gave him legendary status in Italy and only added to his ever-growing aura.
His disciplined mercenary mindset was a vital asset for his second year in Turin. Disappointingly, Luigi Delneri’s black and white outfit had only managed a seventh place finish in Bonucci’s debut season and that seen Delneri soon replaced by the former fan-favourite Antonio Conte. Conte is as tense as they come, demanding, passionate and notoriously intimidating, psychology is a speciality of his. Not solely a man-management specialist, Conte is also a master tactician; his initial systematic change at Juventus was to introduce the 3-5-2 formation which in turn formed the commonly known Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini back three (the Italian BBC). Bonucci had once again struck up a relationship between player and manager like he had with Ventura. Under Conte, Bonucci was the classy, ball-playing third in one of Europe’s greatest defences.
A perfect fit for Pep
Guardiola has innovated his own way of playing into the modern game; his focus to minor detail and perfectionist attitude forces this style to succeed. As for his ideal central defender, Bonucci would be Pep’s model player. While his tall stature and buzz-cut hair poses as a no-nonsense, gritty centre-back, he is arguably one of the most technically gifted players in his possession throughout Europe. He enjoys spreading long and accurate diagonal passes over the top, sharp and vertical passes through the middle and has a high understanding of ball circulation in defence. Nowhere was his passing abilities demonstrated greater than in the Euros just gone; his quick and tidy passes teased Spain while his stunning 50-meter pass to Giaccherini killed Belgium.
Last season Bonucci completed more key passes (14) than Gerard Piqué, Toby Alderweireld and Mats Hummels. Only Jérôme Boateng, who made ten key passes in nineteen games, held a higher key passes per game ratio than Bonucci out of the five ball-playeing defenders. During the 2014/15 season where Juventus completed a domestic double and finished runners-up to Barcelona in the Champions League, Bonucci was an alternate threat to Andrea Pirlo when the maestro was focused on being closed down too often. These are the traits and stats that have earned him comparisons with the late great Gaetano Scirea, who was an elegant libero and core member of Giovanni Trapattoni’s dominant Juventus side back in the late 70s and early 80s.
His flawless blend of combativeness and calmness has undoubtedly caught Guardiola’s attention, maybe one day the two can kindle a partnership Bonucci has been familiar with before under Ventura and Conte.