It is said that Serie A is won by the team with the strongest defense. Well, Gigi Buffon just set a new record of 973 minutes without conceding a Serie A goal, and with just six games to go Juventus have suffered just 17 goals, while second-best Napoli have conceded 27.
Every football fan in the world knows Buffon, the legendary 38-year-old goalkeeper and captain of both Juventus and the Azzurri. Leonardo Bonucci has seen lots of press recently, thanks to his character, goals, and (of course) attention being paid by several European teams as the summer transfer market approaches. Giorgio Chiellini is recognizable for many reasons: his typically Italian gestures, his “wounded warrior” look during the match against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League semi-final and, as everyone remembers, Luis Suárez’s bite.
The Juventus defensive lineup is so strong, it’s often directly inserted into the Italian national team. Yet the fourth member is often overlooked, the way Donatello is usually forgotten when naming the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The fourth Musketeer, currently playing at right center-back in Allegri’s 3-5-2, is Andrea Barzagli. You won’t find his face on football memes or often see him discussed in newspapers. He is not a “hype” player; on the contrary, he’s quite underrated, especially compared to certain defenders for whom clubs have paid a high price over the last few mercato seasons, defenders who still seem unable to prove themselves as elegant, calm and strong as this 34-year-old from Fiesole, Tuscany.
Contrary to his nickname, “The Wall,” Barzagli is a hidden hero. From his nickname, you also wouldn’t guess he’s a connoisseur of fine wines, yet he is, and, just like wine, he gets better with age.
Young Andrea Barzagli played his first Serie A match with Chievo in 2003, after rising through the ranks at Rondinella, Pistoiese and Ascoli. But his professional career really began at Palermo in the 2004-05 season, the same season Zlatan Ibrahimović arrived at Juve – so, several football eras ago.
Maurizio Zamparini, Palermo’s exuberant president, might be considered a bit unhinged by some, but there’s no denying Barzagli is one of the many gems discovered by the man. Under Francesco Guidolin, his first professional coach, Barzagli soon became one of the key players in a Palermo squad that ultimately finished 6th, qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time in the history of the club.
Barzagli does not often appear on the scoresheet, but Palermo supporters probably remember very well the February 2006 match at Empoli’s Castellani Stadium. The Rosanero were fighting to qualify for Europe, but were finding it nearly impossible to impose their rhythm to the game and score against a compact Empoli. With 15 minutes left to play, Rosanero midfielder Paul Codrea was shown a red card, and it seemed almost certain that Palermo would never get out of the Castellani with a victory.
Deep into extra time, Barzagli decided that, if Palermo’s strikers were not having any luck, maybe it was his turn to change the match. Following a free-kick from Fabio Grosso, Barzagli was well placed to make it 0-1, a win that eventually assured the side of a spot in the UEFA Cup – after the dust from Calciopoli settled, that is.
By 2008, it was time for Barzagli to take a step up. He’d been awarded his first senior cap by Marcello Lippi at the age of 23 and was a part of the Azzurri squad that won the World Cup in 2006, filling in for Marco Materazzi for the quarter-final against Ukraine. A meniscus injury ended his Euro 2008 campaign early, but Italy’s embarrassing defensive performance kept him out of the squad for a few years. That didn’t stop teams from courting him, though, and that summer the Palermo captain joined Wolfsburg, alongside his partner in crime Cristian Zaccardo, fellow defender and vice-captain of the Rosanero.
VfL Wolfsburg had, surprisingly, ended their 2007-08 campaign by conquering 5th place, after two years of avoiding relegation. The architect of the Wolfsburg resurrection was Felix Magath – a nightmare name for Juve fans after he stole the side’s European Cup dreams away with a long-distance shot in the 1983 final.
Magath was key in pushing Barzagli to become a great player: thanks to the German coach, the Italian defender changed his mentality and approach to both training and games, to become a winner. The road was long and painful, as Barzagli revealed later, and few who know the coach’s reputation would be surprised to learn that Magath once “punished” him for not giving 100% during training, forcing him to climb a hill with his 93 kg teammate Alexander Madlung on his shoulders.
The impact of Barzagli at Wolfsburg was devastating…first to the rest of the Bundesliga, then to Wolfsburg itself. He played every single minute of the 2008-09 season and, for the first time in the club’s history, Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga. The following year, he made his debut in the Champions League, but the dice of destiny were about to roll again. Barzagli left Die Wõlfe in January 2011 and the German team started its free fall to the bottom of the table, only avoiding relegation in their very last match. Half-man, half-talisman: this is how Wolfsburg supporters will remember Barzagli, who, in the meantime, had headed back to Serie A. Destination: The Old Lady.
In 2014, PSG paid more than €50 million for David Luiz. This amounts to 166 Barzaglis, with Juventus paying just €300,000 for one of the best defenders of a generation.
Still, at the time the price may have seemed steep. The start of Barzagli’s career with Juve was anything but smooth: a 2-1 loss to Udinese, followed by a loss at former side Palermo. The team, not yet completely recovered from Calciopoli, was going through one of the most disastrous seasons in recent history, ultimately finishing 2010-11 in 7th.
Then along came Antonio Conte, and suddenly Juventus were back in their rightful position at the top of Serie A.
Barzagli, too, was back on top, competing with Thiago Silva for the title of Serie A’s best centerback. As Conte’s Juventus became more and more aggressive and confident, Barzagli put on a series of great performances: always ready to anticipate his opponents, always using his immense sense of positioning, always elegant, always an example of fair play.
The last game of that Serie A campaign was a special one for the team, and for every Juventino: not only had Juve gone 38 matches undefeated and returned to their title-winning ways, but it was also a goodbye to the beloved Alessandro Del Piero. The stage was set, Juve were winning the match and Del Piero had scored one final bianconeri goal (although, ironically, the team was dressed in pink). Just one thing was missing: every Juventus outfield player had scored at least one goal during that season…except for Barzagli. So when Atalanta conceded a penalty in stoppage time, his team-mates let him take it. Barzagli scored the penalty with confidence, paving the way for the scudetto celebrations.
With the passing of time, Barzagli became more and more fundamental in Conte’s Juve, which resembled a well-oiled machine rather than a team. During the 2013-14 campaign, only one match tripped up the side. Juve led Fiorentina 2-0 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, but the match ended 4-2 to the hosts as Juventus experienced what appeared to be a collective amnesia. Fiorentina has scored three in five minutes, during which every Juventus player seemed frozen. But something must have happened after the match in Florence. Perhaps the “four Musketeers” of the Juventus defense had looked each other in the eyes and said “Never again, ” as the team went on to collect 102 points and another scudetto.
Barzagli was getting older, though, and he suffered a few injuries during the 2014-15 season, the first under Massimiliano Allegri. However, he reached his first Champions League – the first for Juventus since 2003. Barzagli could only play a few bits and bobs of semifinals against Real Madrid,t replacing midfielders and helping the team to hold fast to their results. However, an injury to Chiellini meant Barzagli became one of the protagonists against Barcelona, tasked with keeping Neymar, Suárez and Lionel Messi from scoring. Barcelona ultimately won, but Barzagli and the other Juventus defenders made that win as difficult as possible.
Sometimes getting older makes it more difficult for players to adapt. Not so for Barzagli, who proved just how flexible he was at the start of what was, at first, a difficult season for Juventus. With many players leaving last summer, it took Allegri quite some time to settle on his perfect XI. Barzagli played as a central defender next to Bonucci in 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3, but after the manager returned to a 3-5-2, he played mainly as a right center-back, but also as a left-center back when, with Chiellini out, the young, but promising Rugani started playing regularly. Barzagli – who has reduced the number of fouls committed per match from .68 to .28 – has been crucial to Juve’s impressive comeback this season, a reliable and calm presence in defense. After 10 matches, Juve were 12th, with just 12 points. After their defeat at Sassuolo, their lowest point, Allegri’s men collected 22 victories and a draw, and now find themselves topping the table, six points clear of Napoli with six games to go.
On March 6, against Atalanta (again), wearing the pink shirt (again), a weak header by Mario Mandžukić fell to Barzagli, who turned it in to the back of the net for his second goal in a Juve strip. Straight after the match, he admitted: “Everyone makes fun of me, even the medical staff, because I never score”. And, when asked if he was happy about the goal, he answered: “Of course I am, but I am not really happy about how I defended today, I could have done better”.
The game was the ninth game in a row in which Juventus did not concede a single goal.
Barzagli the perfectionist, Barzagli the hidden hero.