How did Leonardo Bonucci end up at Milan? The question has been asked countless times over the past three months, and always one image springs to mind: that of the defender sat with a glum expression, watching Juventus’s Champions League win away at Porto from a directors’ box. He had been dropped from the starting XI after a row with Massimiliano Allegri. Their relationship never fully healed.
And how is Leonardo Bonucci getting on at Milan? We might now answer that question with a very similar photograph. As the Rossoneri began the second-half of their game against Genoa on Sunday, TV cameras cut to one of San Siro’s executive suites. There they found Bonucci, wearing a black shirt just like he had done in Portugal – and a melancholy mood to match.
He had been sent off after 25 minutes for throwing an elbow into the face of Aleandro Rosi. More cynical observers mooted that this might have been one of his less damaging Milan performances.
It is fair to say that things have not gone to plan for Bonucci so far at his new club. His €42m transfer fee represents only a small fraction of what Milan spent this summer and yet it was his name, more than any other, that sparked the imagination. André Silva, Ricardo Rodríguez, Andrea Conti and Hakan Calhanoglu were promising youngsters. Bonucci was one of the best defenders in the world.
His signing was a tipping point: the moment at which Milan fans began to believe that this team was being built to challenge for a Scudetto in the near future. Why would a player who had won six in a row with Juventus settle for anything less? More than 65,000 turned out to see Bonucci unveiled together with Lucas Biglia before a Europa League qualifier against Craiova.
Milan played into the hype by handing him the captaincy. It was hoped that his example might also help the 22-year-old Alessio Romagnoli to develop and improve. In practice, though, Bonucci’s arrival had presented manager Vincenzo Montella with a conundrum. The club had already signed another centre-back, Mateo Musacchio, from Villarreal, so how was he going to fit all these defenders into his team?
Montella had typically deployed a back four at Milan, and continued with that theme to begin the season as Romagnoli recovered from a knee injury. After an encouraging start, the wheels came off during a 4-1 thrashing by Lazio. Bonucci had a disastrous game: losing track of his man on the second goal and getting caught in no-man’s land on the third.
Since then, Milan have lined up for every league game in a 3-5-2. Juventus and Italy had used similar formations to draw the best from Bonucci in recent seasons. With Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli on either side, he could serve as the free man: roaming forwards to support the midfield and launch attacks at certain times, then sitting deep to provide cover at others.
Such systems suit Bonucci because he has never been an especially brilliant man-marker. Even when he was making his Serie A breakthrough with Bari back at the end of last decade, his then manager Giampiero Ventura (now in charge of the national side) stated often that team-mate Andrea Ranocchia was the superior defender. Bonucci was instead said to have “a greater personality that allows him to make up for certain mistakes”.
Milan’s formation change, however, only seemed to deepen the player’s personal tailspin. Bonucci was at fault for both goals in a 2-0 defeat to Sampdoria (even if Cristian Zapata’s error was more glaring on the first). It was a similar story in the derby three weeks later, his failure to stick with Mauro Icardi or pass him on to a team-mate allowing the forward a vast open space inside the box from which to score Inter’s second goal.
All of which brings us up to Sunday. Bonucci’s elbow was not thrown maliciously – he had been vying for position with Rosi on a free-kick swung into the Genoa box – but it was dangerous all the same. Referee Piero Giacomelli was correct to show the red card after consulting with VAR. Montella was forced to withdraw Calhanoglu for Romagnoli and adapt a 4-3-1-1.
Without Bonucci, Milan fought to a 0-0 draw. A triumph of spirit for a team that came together without their captain? You could spin it that way if you chose. But this was Milan’s first point in four games, hardly the form of a team with Champions League ambitions. And Genoa, who had chances to win the game, have been ugly this season themselves.
Those truths were only thrown into sharper focus by results elsewhere. Bonucci’s former team, Juventus, also found themselves playing with 10 men against 11 after Mario Mandzukic was sent off midway through the first-half of their game away to Udinese. They went on to win 6-2.
The weekend’s other goalless draw, meanwhile, came at the Stadio San Paolo, where Inter ended Napoli’s run of eight straight wins to begin this campaign. The Nerazzurri were everything that their Milanese neighbours have not been this season: confident, cohesive and clear in their tactical goals.
They rode their luck in certain moments: as any team keeping a clean sheet in Naples would likely need to do. But they also found ways to limit their opponents’ incursions down the wings whilst creating chances of their own. Matias Vecino had one effort cleared off the line.
“You keep saying that we’re fortunate, and we know it,” mused Luciano Spalletti at full-time. “That pleases us, in fact. But my real fortune is getting to manage this group of players. These are footballers who know how to do their job, who know where they want to go.”
Maybe so, but they never looked like a team ready to pursue those grand ambitions until Spalletti showed up. Still unbeaten, with seven wins and two draws, Inter are off to their best start since 1997-98. They have a chance to go top of the table, for one night at least, when they host Sampdoria on Tuesday.
By contrast, Milan must try to right their ship against Chievo in midweek, before hosting Juventus on Saturday. Bonucci is likely to be suspended for both games.
“I would have liked to see him on the pitch against us,” said Allegri upon hearing news of the red card. The way Bonucci’s season has gone so far, some Milan supporters might be happier to find him watching from the directors’ box.
Results: Sampdoria 5-0 Crotone, Atalanta 1-0 Bologna, Benevento 0-3 Fiorentina, Milan 0-0 Genoa, Spal 0-1 Sassuolo, Torino 0-1 Roma, Udinese 2-6 Juventus, Lazio 3-0 Cagliari.
Talking points to follow …
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