March 20, 2017

Andrea Barzagli: a defence’s unsung hero


As a true football fan, if the name Andrea Barzagli doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to consider expanding your football viewing horizons and make it your immediate priority to find out who he is. As a football purist, if hearing that name doesn’t make you think of the perfect defender, you haven’t been doing something right. This article is intended to give most of you the long-awaited wake up call about Andrea Barzagli, one of the best difensori of this generation.

Having won the World Cup in 2006, the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg and the Serie A 5 times with the sixth one well on its way, Barzagli is a proven winner. He is described as a strong, intelligent and disciplined defender who reads the game like no other. The 35-year old centre-back, born in Fiesole, Italy, made his first professional football appearance with semi-professional team Rondinella Calcio in the 1998–99 season. His rise to fame came when he was playing for Palermo from 2004 to 2008, in which he came to wear the captain’s armband and helped the club to a UEFA Cup (nowadays known as Europa League) spot in 2007. In the summer of 2008, Barzagli famously joined VfL Wolfsburg over Fiorentina to everyone’s surprise, with Fiorentina not willing to match Barzagli demands, a decision they would end up later regretting.

Barzagli was an integral part of Magath’s VfL Wolfsburg that won the title in the 2008-2009. Fast forward to 2011, Barzagli joined the Serie A giants Juventus for an astonishingly low fee of €300,000 (roughly 200 times cheaper than Manchester City’s John Stones). Following a disappointing campaign under Luigi del Neri, with the arrival of Antonio Conte as the new Juventus coach, Barzagli became a key part of the Juventus backline, and the rest is history. Juventus won the next five league titles, winning the 2011-2012 Scudetto undefeated, with Barzagli being one of the club’s most consistent performers and most important defender.

“BBC” in training

Juventus finished the 2011-2012 season with the best defence in Italy and in Europe, only conceding 20 goals in 38 appearances (=0.5 goals per game). He is widely considered to be Juventus’ best defender since his arrival, and together with Bonucci and Chiellini became known as ‘BBC’ (Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini). Barzagli is also largely credited for helping Bonucci develop into now one of the best centre-backs in the world; in the 128 games BBC have played together, they have gone a staggering 108 games unbeaten, conceded 62 goals in those 108 games and kept 76 clean sheets. Presently, no defence even comes close to this. Since August 2015, they are at 45 games unbeaten at home in all competitions, which simply is an outrageous stat.  

I’ll give you a few seconds to re-read that last paragraph and to get a napkin to wipe that drool off your face. So how does a defender like Barzagli fail to get recognized by Europe’s most influential journalists? Besides earning himself a place in four Serie A teams of the year, he has virtually no plaudits outside of Italy. It seems journalists are more keen to appreciate flashy defending traits such as interceptions (Ramos-like) and crazy (Otamendi-like) tackles, rather than strong positional discipline and excellent reading of the game. Unfortunately, nowadays even goalscoring tends to give you more recognition as a world-class defender than actually having an intrinsic expert ability to defend. To illustrate this, I find it quite blasphemous to even consider Sergio Ramos as the best centre-back in the world, in fact he isn’t even in the top 3 right now. If you have watched him on a frequent basis over the years, he simply isn’t good enough to be the best defender in the world because he is too rash and makes too many costly mistakes. He is however without a doubt a world-class defender with a flair for the dramatic: scoring late winners has made him ‘Mr. Clutch’, and has kept Real Madrid alive in the Champions League and at the top of La Liga.

Though Ramos and Barzagli are completely different defenders, they both have a similar possession score, as shown in this graph.

In a crucial sense, however, goal scoring is not part of a defender’s job. In fact, Ramos often manages to escape criticism for his somewhat erratic defending at times. As there is no clear statistic that measures a defender’s positional discipline, reading of the game, but there is one that measures tackles and interceptions, Ramos is in luck. Tackles and interceptions are just a few of many essential traits a defender needs to have to be considered elite. To read a game, anticipate attacks and position yourself perfectly against the world’s best players is a very complicated job. I had the courtesy to see this done by probably the best at it at the time in 2015, when I saw Juventus face Inter Milan at the San Siro. It ended 0-0, with both sides quite evenly matched. Inter Milan did have some good spells of possession in Juventus’ half, but as soon as the ball got to the final third, Inter Milan could go no further. Barzagli, playing for the injured Lichtsteiner at right-back, had no problem adapting and did what he always did: defended astutely, effortlessly striding over the field to intercept play and snuff out dangerous attacks, and man marked players at the right time. I was in awe of what I saw.

I cannot do more now than simply hope some of you will finally understand the truly exceptional defender that is Andrea Barzagli. I will not cry for him to be named in FIFA’s World XI, or to even win a Ballon D’or like his fellow countryman Fabio Cannavaro did in 2006.

But what I will is do leave you with these last words. Combine tackling, interceptions, proper reading of the game with discipline and you’ll get Andrea Barzagli. For his services, Barzagli will surely retire as one of Juventus’ best defenders of all time, and that’s saying a lot considering a list of elite defenders that have played for the Bianconeri: Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Gaetano Scirea etc. While he is still playing now, we should the enjoy the time we have left with him.

Andrea Barzagli, a humble man with a humble set of skills that aren’t meant to dazzle you but are meant to earn your trust. To give you the feeling of someone you can definitely rely on, because isn’t that what we all want in the ideal defender? I know I do.

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