Once upon a time, Italy’s football conveyor belt regularly churned out top class defenders and consequently saw them become the foundations of many successes. Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Fabio Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini are just a few of many.
Sadly today some feel il Bel Paese no longer produces worthy graduates able to change a game from the back, including one of Italy’s greatest ever defenders. “Learning to run after the opponents is much harder and less rewarding than to attack,” explains Maldini. “I see a lot of teams that attack but lack a defence. Today, the most difficult thing is defence. Now the full-backs are no longer defenders while central midfielders don’t have a defensive outlook.”
Hopefully for Italy’s sake this rationalisation could soon become outdated following Angelo Ogbonna’s move to Juventus. Certainly the Azzurri international seems to have all the components to become one of the game’s greats and playing in Europe this season he could change history sooner rather than later.
Yet, at one point, his transfer from Torino nearly fell through. The move started to take on aspects of one of those yawn-inducing Brazilian soap operas on Italian television. It was a series of stop-start negotiations, discontinued talks, bigger bids from other clubs and achingly convoluted player exchanges involving half-ownerships. All it needed was the introduction of Globo’s Walter Avancini to direct it, chop it up and put it into daily 30-minute segments. At one point the whole deal was put on hold, even getting to the stage where many were becoming indifferent to the entire saga.
Eventually last week saw him sign and Juve acquireed a potentially superb player, whose imposing physique and pace matches his ability to read a game. Factor in his precise tackling, lack of red cards and he becomes a daunting defensive presence.
It’s doubtful he will be first on the team sheet but with Champions League, Serie A, Coppa Italia games and of course injuries, there’s no doubt he will play his part. His ability to play at left-back means Coach Antonio Conte can also use him in any number of systems. So there are many plusses to this deal not least that Juve have prevented him falling into the hands of interested rivals like Milan, Napoli and Inter. On the surface €15m over three years is comparative peanuts for a prospective top class defender.
Yes there are a few minuses but nothing of real import and any Bulls-baiters out there, it’s not as if Juve haven’t imported top class defenders from Torino before - remember Gianluca Pessotto and Federico Balzaretti.
But there are several questions still circulating about him. The first being does he engage his brain before his mouth? An obvious reference to the time he promised he would never play for Juve, which was said on radio and apparently as a joke. What would anyone expect him to say seeing that the Bianconeri and Torino are not exactly good neighbours? It could even be an urban myth, as his agent insists he never even said it.
Another possible minus is that although he is a tremendous left-footer he is perhaps a bit too obviously so at times. Furthermore last season, several critics raised the ante over his general fitness and form. Plus one of the biggest question marks is where does he fit in Conte’s defensive jigsaw? Who knows but he certainly won't be usurping the Andrea Barzagli-Leonardo Bonucci-Giorgio Chiellini backline too soon.
With Torino he also played a different style, a game based on the counter-attack. At Juve, Conte prefers his teams to have the ball in the first place and not give the opposition anything, if it can be helped. All very laudable but can Ogbonna adapt? He will also have to adjust to having more space and using the ball more succinctly, which in all fairness shouldn’t be too hard for him. Juve defenders also play higher up the field than Torino’s, which sees more pressure on individual defenders. At Torino he was asked to man-mark and could be caught out, if not exactly off the pace physically, certainly mentally, whilst with Juve there will no margin for error.
Yet, simply put, if he wasn’t good enough why would Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Arsenal Manchester United and several of Serie A top sides reportedly be interested? In conclusion, he is fine addition and with Conte to guide him Ogbonna could soon be ready to step into the pages of history.