The new Manchester City boss is a long-time admirer of the Juventus defender, who underlined his excellence with a stellar showing in Italy’s Euro 2016 opener against Belgium on Monday
It was while defending his Bayern Munich side for blowing a 2-0 lead in their Champions League clash with Juventus in Turin in February that Pep Guardiola made an interesting admission. “Did you really think we could come here and expect to dominate for 90 minutes?” he asked. “Against a side with [Paul] Pogba, [Mario] Mandzukic, [Alvaro] Morata, [Gianluigi] Buffon and [Leonardo] Bonucci – who is one of my favourite ever players.”
That revelation came as a surprise to many. The man synonymous with free-flowing attacking football had singled out a defender for very special praise. However, those in attendance that covered Juventus week in and week out were not in the least bit taken aback. Serie A may no longer be the best league in the world but it still produces the best coaches and, arguably, the best defenders. Furthermore, Bonucci is blessed with a vision and natural footballing ability that is rare in the modern game. He is, in many ways, Guardiola’s ideal centre-half.
Nowhere was this better underlined than in Lyon on Monday night. Picking the ball up inside the centre circle, Leonardo Bonucci took a look up, spotted an intelligent run in behind the Belgian defence by Italy team-mate Emanuele Giaccherini and hit a stunning 50-metre pass that landed right on the midfielder’s toe. The first touch was sublime, the finish composed, but the goal was all about Bonucci’s ball from the back. It was, as Giaccherini told reporters in the mixed zone afterwards, “perfect”.
Leonardo Bonucci was anything but flawless in his early days, though. Indeed, after coming through the youth team ranks at Inter, the young defender was considered worryingly error-prone, susceptible to costly lapses in concentration. As a result, after largely underwhelming loan spells at Serie B strugglers Treviso and Pisa, he was sold to Genoa, who then promptly allowed him to join Bari as part of a co-ownership agreement. This was key because it was at the Stadio San Nicola that Leonardo Bonucci met the most important coach of his career, Giampiero Ventura.
“He improved me as a player and as a man,” the centre-half explained in 2014. “I arrived in Pisa on the Wednesday and I was already on the field by the Sunday; Ventura threw me straight into the mix. That’s not an easy thing to do because every team has its own way of playing. However, he put me at ease right away and at the end of our first meeting he had given me so many compliments. From then on, I started to get on the ball, to look for the riskier passes and this was the secret of this relationship between myself and Ventura.”
Bonucci had a stunning debut season at Bari, forming a formidable yet exciting central defensive pairing with fellow youngster Andrea Ranocchia. He took more risks yet made fewer mistakes. His dramatic improvement caught the attention of Juve, who paid €15.5 million for his services in the summer of 2010.
In Turin, Leonardo Bonucci played nearly every week yet struggled to reproduce the form which had attracted the interest of Manchester United and Arsenal the season before. However, once again, the influence of a coach would prove decisive in maintaining his upward curve.
At the end of a disappointing 2010-11 campaign, which saw Juve finished seventh in Serie A, the Old Lady replaced Gigi Delneri with former fan favourite Antonio Conte. The ex-Italy international almost immediately introduced a 3-5-2 formation, deploying the ball-playing Leonardo Bonucci in the middle of the backline that also featured Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini.
It was an inspired move on Conte’s part, essentially laying the foundation for three successive Scudetti under his tenure. Chiellini provided the grit, Barzagli the nous, and Bonucci the ability to play the ball out from the back. Indeed, the defender’s calmness in possession and impressive range of passing became central to Juve’s games, with his raking balls downfield offering an important alternative to the more measured build-up favoured by Juve’s then regista, Andrea Pirlo.
However, Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t just there to play ‘Hollywood’ balls. He also offered bravery; always willing to put his body on the line to keep the ball out of Gianluigi Buffon’s net. Indeed, his legendary status among those stood on the Curva Scirea was only enhanced further after an incident in 2012 in which he, his wife and infant child were held up by an armed mugger. The would-be thief demanded the Italy international’s watch. Bonucci responded with a punch in the face before setting off in pursuit of the mugger.
“It all happened in a matter of seconds,” Leonardo Bonucci explained a few days later on his Facebook page, “and it came from an instinctive reaction and certainly not an attempt to emulate the superheroes you see at the cinema!”
Still, for Juve and Italy, Bonucci had, by this point, become a leading man with a nice habit of stealing the show, as he did with his dramatic late winner in a crucial Serie A clash with title rivals Roma in October 2014. He was the star of the show once again in Italy’s 2-0 win over Belgium, turning in an inspired performance at the heart of the Azzurri’s brilliant all-Juve backline that was capped off with his sublime assist for the game’s opening goal. There really is no other centre-half in the world as gifted at making tackles as making passes.
“I have always tried that kind of ball,” he mused on Monday night, “and doing it regularly leads to improvement, as I’ve done it quite a few times at Juventus and now for Italy.” In other words, practice makes perfect. As Leonardo Bonucci’s career so brilliantly illustrates.