As referee Piero Giacomelli ran across the San Siro turf on Sunday to assess the VAR, much of the 47,000 crowd inside the stadium waited with bated breath. The footage Giacomelli saw showed Leonardo Bonucci elbowing Aleandro Rosi from a Milan corner. As the referee brandished the red card, audible gasps could be heard, but the truth of the matter is that Bonucci could have little complaint, nor could he quibble with the two game ban which followed.
His 24th minute dismissal capped off a disastrous start to the season for Milan’s marquee signing. Bonucci has looked a shadow of the player widely considered to be amongst the finest centre-backs in the modern game. Questions are starting to be asked as to whether all the praise Bonucci has received in the last several years was really warranted in the first place, or is the 30-year-old just going through a very prolonged rough patch?
Milan’s signing of Bonucci from Juventus was viewed as the steal of the summer transfer window. Many went further, likening it to the ‘game changing’ summer of 2011, when Andrea Pirlo traded Milan for Turin and played a pivotal role in starting a new cycle of dominance. Yet even at this early stage, it’s clear that isn’t the case. Nine games in and Milan are already 12 points behind leaders Napoli and 9 points off their minimum objective – qualification for the Champions League.
The pressure on Vincenzo Montella grows with every insipid performance, with it looking increasingly likely that he won’t see the season out on the Milan bench. Yes you can point to the huge numbers of signings and the time it takes to assimilate them into Montella’s vision for the side, but it shouldn’t be ignored that the signing of Bonucci has forced him to utilise a three-man backline in order to get the best out of the defender’s brilliant play-making capabilities. A system he never previously implemented with the Rossoneri. And it isn’t working.
Many of the new signings have made little impact thus far, André Silva looks a player still coming to terms with playing in a vastly different league to the one he just left. Ricardo Rodriguez resembles little of the player who was a swashbuckling left-back for Wolfsburg only a couple of seasons ago; while Hakan Çalhanoglu has only really excelled in certain sections of games. The benefit of the doubt can be afforded to those players, as they’re all in their early 20s. With Bonucci it simply can’t; he was brought in to be the leader of this side, as evidenced by the fact he was immediately made Diavolo captain.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Bonucci ranged from mediocre to abominable in his first couple of seasons at Juventus. And even as he developed and matured, he still had the occasional calamity bubbling underneath the surface. Many of those calamities were swept away by the other members of the famed ‘BBC’ bloc, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. It got to the point where the trio didn’t even need to communicate on the pitch; a simple glance would suffice.
Bonucci, given everything he achieved since those early Juve days, should be hitting the ground running at Milan. However without the rugged Chiellini and streetwise Barzagli standing next to him, he looks lost. You almost get the feeling he’s continually looking for them on the pitch, only to realise he no longer wears black and white but red and black.
Juventus has also suffered in the wake of Bonucci’s departure. At the same stage last season they’d conceded 3 goals less despite playing more of the league’s heavyweights. Max Allegri – widely believed to be the sole reason why Bonucci felt it was time to move on – has chopped and changed his defensive pairings, with neither Daniele Rugani or Medhi Benatia impressing. There’s a vulnerability about the Juventus backline that hasn’t been apparent in years.
No one can ever claim that any of the BBC are outstanding defenders as individuals - certainly not in the Franco Baresi or Paolo Maldini mould - but as a unit they were the best in the business. Has Bonucci’s true ability as a defender been masked by playing as part of a highly-organised trio for all these years? Will he regain his Juventus-peak?
As Milan general manager Marco Fassone has relayed the story of the Bonucci signing several times since, Bonucci was the one who reached out first, notifying the club of his availability.
A classic case of not appreciating what you have until its gone? It certainly looks that way so far.