One week after winning UEFA’s goalkeeper of the year award, Gianluigi Buffon notched his 170th appearance for Italy last Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu versus Spain, a feat deserving to be honoured. However, a whirling buzz-saw Spanish side spoiled the party, fleecing the Italians 3-0 in a rout which theoretically rules out a Group G victory in World Cup qualifying.
Coach Giampiero Ventura’s tactical gamble to field a 4-2-4 formation backfired, and ‘La Roja’ exposed him for it, capitalising on numerical superiority in the midfield and leaving Buffon to stop the bleeding as the last line of defence. Ventura became the unanimous scapegoat by supporters on social media for his decisions to start Marco Verratti-Daniele De Rossi in a double-pivot that got over-run and outplayed by a Spanish assault lead by Isco.
Yet, in a match that saw even the most consistent of the Nazionale performers - Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci - struggle for pace and fail to maintain position, Buffon uncharacteristically became a subject of criticism too.
Early in proceedings, most were quick to attack Buffon’s noticeably slow reaction to Isco’s curling effort from a free-kick 20 yards out; myself included. Undoubtedly, it was an attempt you’d come to expect the former Parma man to snuff out, but after a second glance, this was more an instructional mistake than anything else physical.
By placing six men in the wall, Buffon appeared to be positioned slightly further to his left, thus unable to reach the precisely struck free kick. A smaller, more condensed wall would’ve put him more central, ultimately increasing his odds of keeping the first of three out.
Additionally, caught up in the criticism of Italy, many forgot to credit Spain’s attacking trident of Isco, Marco Asensio and David Silva for their constant pressing of the ball-carrier and forcing Italy to reset often.
Simple back-passes from Verratti were at a higher-grade of difficulty. Buffon, over the course of his career, has developed a known reputation of being customarily sharp with his feet and composed on the ball, which is why the few he fluffed were brought to our attention. Those claiming Gianluigi Donnarumma would’ve done better might want to remember how he dealt with Gabriel Paletta’s own goal in Pescara.
Pushing 40, Buffon has given Italy the luxury of goalkeeping royalty spanning two decades; a luxury unrivaled by any other top footballing nation. Obviously Buffon’s leadership and body of work over the years - for both club and country - cannot be praised enough; after all, he may go down as the greatest of his kind.
However, much like several individuals of the old guard, the 2006 World Cup winner isn’t getting any younger and supporters are beginning to come to grips with the fact that 2017-18 will likely be his final year donning Azzurro.
For the first time in two decades, the search for a new number one is on. Milan wonderkid Gianluigi Donnarumma is the consensus favorite to take up the helm, with Mattia Perin and SPAL loanee Alex Meret looming in the shadows. At a time where Italian calcio fans are on edge due to the previous two World Cup showings, nobody is free from flak: even Buffon.
Nevertheless, though there is room for debate over whether or not Gigi is slipping, the heavy criticism received in the aftermath is unwarranted and should be kept to a minimum.