“Defence wins Championships” goes the old adage and, looking at Juventus sitting in first place as the Winter Break draws ever closer, the Serie A table only serves to reinforce that point. They have conceded just ten goals in their opening seventeen games, a total seven fewer than any other team in the division and, as was highlighted in this column last week, they do so by first dominating possession and then by not allowing opponents many opportunities to shoot on goal. With an average of just 9.6 shots heading Gigi Buffon’s way each game, it is no surprise to see he has made just 29 saves in his fifteen appearances.
Looking at the three players making up Antonio Conte’s well drilled back three, it is no surprise to see each of the trio performing well. Andrea Barzagli and Leo Bonucci have been as dominant and consistent as the Old Lady herself, recording WhoScored.com averages of 7.31 and 7.1 respectively but it is Giorgio Chiellini who – according to the statistics – leads the way. He is currently the fourth highest rated player in Serie A and the eleventh highest across Europe’s top 5 leagues thanks to an average of 7.83.
He has done so thanks to a combination of factors and, whilst his passing has been hugely impressive – an average of 54 completions per game at a rate of 90.4% – it is, as you would expect, thanks to his defensive contribution that he has ranked so highly. Only Arturo Vidal (5.0) averages more tackles per game for the reigning champions than his 3.1 whilst his 3.2 interceptions per game is currently a team high. The same applies to his 7.7 clearances per game, far ahead of second placed Bonucci (6.1) and the same player is the only squad member to top his 0.4 blocked shots per game.
Yet for all of his obvious qualities, Chiellini fails to lead the league in a single category and is not even the top ranked defender in Serie A, an honour which belongs to Inter’s Andrea Ranocchia. His 7.97 rating is bettered only by Andrea Pirlo (8.1) and the Juventus midfielder is one of just four men across the whole of Europe to rate higher than the 24 year old, along with Lionel Messi (8.99), Franck Ribéry (8.77) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (8.07).
With a goal and an assist to his name, he too is doing so well thanks to his contributions at the other end of the field where his 4.4 tackles, 3.6 interceptions and 8.6 clearances are all better tallies than those of Chiellini. However, whilst his 1.1 blocked shots per game is a league leading figure, other players top his contribution in every other category. Here is a look at some of the surprising names topping the major defensive statistics in Serie A thus far this season.
Tackles - Valon Behrami (Napoli): 5.7 per game
Despite not being famed for his defensive work-rate, the Swiss midfielder actually made more tackles than any player other than Vidal in the league last year, his average of 4.9 per game only slightly fewer than the 5.4 made by the Chilean. This year he is the one out in front, his average of 5.7 per game the best across Europe’s top five leagues (85 in total), and an increase to 6.5 per appearance during Europa League action is also worthy of note. Torino’s Matteo Darmian is his closest challenger, having made 83 tackles this season, followed by Genoa’s Juraj Kucka on 72.
Interceptions – Neto (Siena): 4.3 per game
The Brazilian born central defender has been hugely impressive since his €1.7 million summer move from Nacional, earning a number of call ups to the Portuguese national team and, despite the fact he is yet to make an appearance for the Seleção, it seems only a matter of time before he forces his way into Paulo Bento’s starting line up. He has an excellent reading of the game, as his league high 4.3 interceptions per game highlights, a figure again good enough to lead all players across the top 5 leagues and some distance ahead of second placed domestic rival Ranocchia (3.6). Perhaps with a few more players doing as well as the 24 year old, Serse Cosmi might still be in his job and Robur not so firmly rooted to the foot of the Serie A table.
Clearances – Mario Yepes (Milan): 10.4 per game
Perhaps it says much of the Rossoneri’s scrambling season that we find both Yepes and team-mate Philippe Mexes (8.8 clearances per game) among the top six of a category normally dominated by the league’s more struggling sides. Indeed, noting that players from Genoa and Cagliari – both among the bottom five in the table – surround the Milan duo only serves to indicate just how hard they have had to work this term. Despite that, the Columbian international is enjoying a good season on a personal level with his 4.4 aerial duels won per game also a league high and a highly impressive 92.2% pass completion rate helping to keep him in the side despite the summer arrivals of Cristián Zapata and Francesco Acerbi.