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.
Talking points and results
- Spalletti suggested during a post-game press conference that Maurizio Sarri was so smart that if he had carried on working at a bank instead of becoming a football coach then he would be working by now as the government’s finance minister. Sarri’s response: “Well going on tonight’s evidence, I guess he’d be the minister of defence”.
- Despite another impressive result, Inter can’t take victory over Samp for granted on Tuesday. The Blucerchiati hammered Crotone 5-0 this weekend and the fact that their goals came from five different scorers further indicates the confidence running right through a team that sits sixth with a game in hand. That said, manager Marco Giampaolo does not believe he would suit a cabinet post. Referred to the exchange between Spalletti and Sarri, he said: “There’s no seat for me. I’d be the opposition.”
- Hats off to Mario Mandzukic for talking himself into a second yellow card within seconds of receiving the first one on Sunday. He took it almost as well, in fact, as Samir did his own goal for Udinese.
- The Benevento fairytale has turned into something more befitting of the Brothers Grimm. They have lost all nine games – the worst start any team has ever made to a Serie A season – and manager Marco Baroni, having brought them up to the top flight for the first time in their history, is reportedly close to losing his job. He will not be the first manager to go, though, since Massimo Rastelli already got the hook at Cagliari on Tuesday.
- There was a time when fans of Hellas Verona used to insist that their games against Chievo weren’t a ‘real’ derby, the latter considered small fry despite their geographic proximity. But Chievo have been playing top-flight football for 16 out of the past 17 seasons now, while their neighbours have just been promoted back to Serie A after a year out. The Flying Donkeys expected to win their lunchtime showdown on Sunday, and did – although not as comfortably as some might have supposed. Sergio Pellissier came off the bench to score a late winner, but Roberto Inglese – Bobby English to fans of Google Translate – was the real star, scoring twice and further building his reputation after a first call-up to the full Italy squad in October.
- Nobody is enjoying this season quite as much as Ciro Immobile, mind. He struck twice against Cagliari and now has 17 goals in all competitions. He is averaging one every 61 minutes in Serie A.
- That said, the true star of Lazio-Cagliari was not Immobile but rather Bastos’s son, who took most unkindly at being made to leave his dad before kick-off.
- Not content with a goal against Chelsea, Aleksandar Kolarov followed up by showing Torino manager Sinisa Mihajlovic that he isn’t the only one who can take a mean free-kick.
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.
This article was written by Paolo Bandini, for theguardian.com on Monday 23rd October 2017 14.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010