There is an undeniable association between the history of Italian football and great centre backs. Especially in the Serie A.
Some may argue that the slower pace of play typically seen in Serie A promotes and even exaggerates the quality of its defenders. There is equally a counter claim that it is the robustness and unbreachable quality of said defences that have taken the sting out of Italian attacks. Thinking smarter, and not quicker, is the referred to consequence.
The past thirty years have produced magnificent individual quality of centre back in Serie A. Going back before that too, but since the mid-nineties there was an explosion in talent in this position. Paolo Maldini (also a world class left back of course), Alessandro Nesta, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Marco Materazzi, Lucio, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Kalidou Koulibaly. There are countless others that no doubt have been missed from that brief gladiator roll call.
This season in particular has seen the rise of a new generation. Excitement and anticipation of these three players’ abilities has been brewing for years, but together they represent a new era of centre back talent in the league. Given their importance to their respective clubs, and the fees which they will now command to prise them away, this could remain the case for many years to come.
It is now time to welcome in the next class of great Serie A defender.
22 years old
The cult of personality and identity that follow modern managers round precede them. It means that prior to their arrival in a new job, the shapes and systems they have carried with them before are assumed to transpose themselves onto the new squad. The manager (of elite calibre) moulds the squad, and not necessarily the other way round. Never is this truer than with Antonio Conte.
One does not see an imminent Conte arrival and plan for long term plans of future proofing. The short term success is assured with clever player development, and galvanising parts of a squad once discarded. One such imperative of a Conte group is plentiful centre back depth. The three profiles of defender he favour tend to mix excellent long ball distribution, spatial awareness and anticipation, and physicality. Alessandro Bastoni personifies all three.
Bred through the incredible Zingonia academy at Atalanta, Bastoni has been bred to play such a system. His limited early minutes at Atalanta in Serie A were spent on the left side of a back three; albeit the Gasperini rendition that reads very differently. Less than a year on from his first team debut in 2016, Inter bought a then eighteen year old Bastoni for €31 million and loaned him back to Bergamo for a further two seasons. Inter cut this loan short after the first season as Bastoni was unable to breakthrough into Gasperini’s plans, and instead sent him to Parma for the 2018/19 season.
Bastoni arrived back in Milan at the same time as Conte. Conte’s centre back trios have rarely found room for teenagers cutting their teeth, no matter how talented nor expensive. However Bastoni broke that mould, and remained at his parent club.
In a transitional campaign, where Inter lost only two league games in finishing a point behind winners Juventus, and reached a Europa League Final, Bastoni racked up over 1,900 league minutes. This was more than seasoned defender Diego Godin in Serie A, and made him the ninth most played figure in the squad. A promising breakthrough campaign, but it would be the following year when Inter and Bastoni together would hit their stride.
As Conte wrestled the Scudetto from the locked arms of Juventus, Bastoni recorded more league minutes than any outfield player in the team. He, Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij have all started over thirty league games as Conte’s chosen trio. The understanding and relationship bred through this repetitive action cannot be understated.
Bastoni is an aesthetic centre back, no doubt aided by his tall frame and left footed persuasion. He has sat on the left side of the back three and used his incredible passing range to devastating effect. Of course the measure of a great centre back is not solely in their attacking output. However the heights Bastoni is already hitting in this regard are frightening.
Over the last 365 days he ranks in the top 2% for assists and xA per 90 minutes among centre backs, as well as for progressive carries (6.70). He steps away from the defensive line and moves into progressive areas like few other centre backs, of course enabled by the Conte structure around him. This reflects in these attacking and passing metrics, but watching Bastoni aim for a centre forward like Romelu Lukaku is enthralling. He moves the ball out of his feet and gathers momentum before looking up and chipping the ball dep into enemy lines. The way he spots the diagonal runs of a forward, curving their run to receive the pass-come-cross, brings the mind back to the telepathic Toby Alderweireld-Dele Alli connection at Tottenham. Sweeping long passes that soar and then dip onto the foot or head of the attacker. Beautiful.
The assist for Nicolo Barella’s goal versus Juventus this season depicts this beautifully.
Defensively, Bastoni stands out more to the eye than in the data. He shows a sometimes awkward stance when retreating on the transition, and twists away from the ball when forced to block. Nevertheless he is a strong reader of space, and anticipates the forward’s movement well to cut out passes. At twenty two, and still physically developing, there is still the suspicion that a powerful centre forward could bully him out of a game. However these aspects will no doubt come, and the potential Bastoni already supposes to show are frightening.
With only three full seasons under his belt at senior level in Serie A, Bastoni can already claim to be one of the league’s best defenders.
Matthijs de Ligt
21 years old
The heritage attached to Matthijs de Ligt’s laces has a tangible mass. That of an Ajax academy graduate, as the starting centre back for his country for the next decade, and captain of his boyhood club as a teenager. His move to Juventus in 2019 was an intriguing one, and one that many saw as a good developmental step. At Ajax he was the captivating leader whilst still wet behind the ears. In Turin de Ligt would be playing alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in Serie A. Each a master modern defender.
His first season however would prove confusing. The nineteen year old experienced plenty of play time as Chiellini suffered with injuries, however there was a palpable sense of underwhelm at his performances. A series of conceded penalties from handballs, and appearing vulnerable when dribbled at, were concerning for fans who expected de Ligt to arrive fully formed.
Such is the aura he carries one is forgiven for thinking so. He is barrel chested and strong, and a confident communicator belying his junior years. This season however, as Juventus crumble to their worst campaign finish in over a decade, de Ligt has come to the fore.
His dribbler tackle success has rocketed from 48.3% last season to 64.7% this year. In possession too, de Ligt is making fifteen passes more per match than he was last year, despite the team’s possession count remaining constant. This will have downsides, and the laborious play building of Pirlo’s team has contributed to their poor season. On a personal note however, it has seen de Ligt involved more readily in possession, and as a result his passing game seems restored to its Ajax levels.
If Bastoni is a pleasing passer and mover as a defender, de Ligt’s aesthtic comes in his defending. Physically he matches up to most opponents, and uses his broad frame to wrestle and protect the ball in the tackle. He is a hands on type of defender, at times grabbing and using his trunk-like-forearms to lever the attacker away. This may have contributed to his propensity to give away handballs last season, but by and large he uses it to good effect.
His 68.1% aerial success rate has also improved on 2019/20, and is higher than either of the other two defenders compared here. Whisper it quietly, but it even stands higher than that of Ruben Dias.
de Ligt is physical and dominating without being clumsy or reckless. An area of his game that he excels is in knowing when to rush out to challenge, and when to hold his ground or cover backwards. As Juventus hold the ball so high and so much, opponents will mostly attempt to break on them and fly at pace in the transition. de Ligt is confident and assured in his decision making, and will use his frame to guide the attacker away from danger. Rarely will he twist or be turned and means he rarely commits fouls in the tackle.
Such was the hype about de Ligt that there remains an expectation that he will move up another gear or three in years to come. As with all of these centre backs, they are potentially five to eight years from their prime. In a dreadful campaign for the Old Lady, de Ligt has shown great growth and improvement. He is one of few to emerge with any credibility this year, and will now comfortably shoulder the burden of Juventus’ future prospects.
The magnet on his bicep is pulling at the captain’s armband already.
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23 years old
The joy and thrill of watching Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta is the worst kept secret in European football. For five years now, Atalanta have blitzed opponents apart and have recorded three successive top four finishes. The style, the dedication to youth, and the uncompromising will to attack. The lesser spoken element is of Atalanta’s defence. Few will argue that their three man defence is the key to success, and the untrained pundit eye will go as far to say it has held back their potential.
Whilst Rafael Toloi and Jose Luis Palomino have received criticism, Argentine Cristian Romero has shown another level to their defence. Signed by Genoa in 2018 from Belgrano, Romero was quickly signed by Juventus after one season in Italy for €26 million. This of course was the year they brought de Ligt in, so Romero was loaned back Genoa for a second impressive season.
Thirty appearances in a terrific year back at Genoa pushed Romero’s reputation further. However his parent club, still bedding in de Ligt at centre back (not to mention Daniele Rugani and Merih Demiral too) loaned Romero again. This time, to Atalanta.
Gasperini’s side play in a way unlike almost any Italian team. They press high and aggressively in a man-to-man manner, and build up much quicker than the pace of Italian football typically promotes. Doing so requires the centre backs to be confident in possession, daring in the pass, but also reactive and quick to turn to play over and restart the attacking phase. The speed is relentless.
Romero appears custom made for this role. He is aggressive, bordering on reckless, in anticipating danger and ranks in the 99th percentile across centre backs for pressures (16.61) and interceptions (2.64). His 3.02 tackles put him in the 98th percentile, whilst his 2.25 blocks and 3.82 successful aerial duels are in the 91st percentile in Serie A. His consistency in the air, despite being two inches shorter than both Bastoni and de Ligt is frightening, showing a fearless will to attack high balls.
Romero also ranks in the Serie A top ten players for clearances, interceptions, % of dribblers tackled and tackles won. He is already a complete defender, not demonstrating one obvious flaw nor weakness in his technical game. Romero does commit a high volume of fouls, almost double that of either Bastoni or de Ligt. However he has also won almost double the duels either have. He is perfectly versed for Gasperini’s system.
Atalanta are not a heavy possession side, instead preferring to turn the ball over high and counter press. Romero therefore sees less of the ball than most top centre backs, but still executes his passes well. Not as renowned for his long ball ability as Bastoni, Romero has nevertheless completed 157/190 long passes this year compared to Bastoni’s 302/407 in Serie A.
Romero gives a sense of excitement few associate with a defender. He is not serene like a Ruben DIas, but the power and force that he carries his work out with is rare. Atalanta require their defenders to live on the edge. To take the ball and overlap their wingback in possession. Or to rush and slide the ball away from an opponent at speed. It is why they are the side they have become, and Romero is just the best possible version of that model.
To have both de Ligt and Romero in their ranks next season (should la Dea not exercise their buy option on him), is an unthinkable rich for Juventus to have.
All stats correct as of 19/05/2021, via FBRef
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