Johan Cruyff, football’s great philosopher, once said: “The Italians can’t beat you, but you can lose the game against the Italians.”
Culturally, the art of defending sits alongside cuisine and fashion for the Italians. They are famous for reviving ‘Catenaccio’ – the lock-door system, a defensive tactic which gave birth to other variations and is still popular today – and Serie A hosts some of Europe’s finest defenders.
But who are the standouts? We’ve examined some of the Italian top flight’s elite defenders and evaluate their individual performances in 2018/19 while making observations on what it says about how their team operates.
Individual statistics like interceptions, tackling and blocked shots are used as parameters rather than clean-sheets, goals conceded and xGA/GA (Expected goals against/ goals against) which gives a reflection of the team’s defensive unit as a whole.
The y-axis of the graph above displays interceptions per 90 minutes and the x-axis shows the tackles per 90 minutes. The size of the bubble is in proportion to the number of shots blocked by the defender every 90 minutes.
One of the greatest defenders of the modern era, Paulo Maldini is famed for saying: “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”
Excellent positioning means defenders shouldn’t require tackles to rectify their mistakes.
Therefore, intercepting key passes takes precedence over tackling and it’s not surprising that one of the best defensive pairings in Europe, Juventus centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci top the charts here. This is also a feature of Massimiliano Allegri’s possession-based football where the positioning of the defenders is crucial.
AC Milan’s Francesco Acerbi deserves a mention for duelling with the giants. He has been a key part of the Rossoneri’s defence which has seen improvement from last season.
Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly lead the pack when tackles per 90 minutes are taken into consideration. Also, the latter is the only defender among those considered for our study whose numbers are greater than the average in all the parameters.
One could say that the Senegal international is probably the most complete defender in the league. It’s not surprising that top European clubs are fighting for his signature.
It’s also worth noting that Raul Albiol has not been great this season and the numbers speak for themselves. Koulibaly deserves more credit here for covering up for the former Real Madrid man.
Inter’s dependable centre-half Skriniar has been performing at the top level this season and the Slovakian had his share of stories in the transfer rumour mill too. Manchester United and Barcelona are reportedly fighting for his signature. The numbers show why this is completely justified.
The high volume of tackles and blocked shots prove how the defender is resilient and very much capable of soaking up the pressure. His performance against Barcelona in the Champions League – although not part of the stats here – warrants mention as one of the best performances by any defender this season.
The Roma defence is not at its best currently and the fact that Atalanta is the only team within the top 10 which has conceded more goals than them serves as evidence. Federico Fazio has been at the end of voluminous shots but his tackling and intercepting abilities have seriously been compromised.
Clearly, Serie A is home to some of the best defenders in the world and will continue to produce prodigies and technically gifted prospects. The land of Maldini and Alessandro Nesta and Franco Baresi never fails to disappoint.
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