Many times in football, quality defending is attributed to Italians.
There is an unofficial consensus that the Italians are the best when it comes to defensive play.
What then, makes Italian defenders so good?
Here’s what you need to know.
Why are Italian defenders so good?
Over the years, defenders like Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Materazzi, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, and many others have stamped themselves as the best in their position.
This was because of their consistently excellent performance levels for both club and country.
En route to winning the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Italy conceded only two goals throughout the tournament. Similarly, they conceded only four goals throughout their successful Euro 2020 campaign. Their success in both tournaments was down to their defensive structure and solidity.
With the scores at 1-1 during the Euro 2020 final, there was a moment in which it seemed like England would go on to nick it. But, were it not for an unconventional stop from Italy’s captain Giorgio Chiellini, football may have indeed come home for England.
In that match, Arsenal youngster Bukayo Saka came off the bench and nicked the ball off the 37-year-old Chiellini. Then, in the last minute of added time, the 20-year-old was about to run through on goal, only for Chiellini to drag him to the ground by his neck.
It was an intervention that drew applause from football analysts worldwide for the speed of the decision and the determination to prevent a goal. It was, by all means, a title-winning intervention from the veteran defender.
Experienced and exceptionally decorated manager Jose Mourinho has previously said that the Italian duo of Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci could lecture on defending at Harvard University. This shows how highly the Italian defenders are rated worldwide.
What, then, makes them so good at defending?
Defensive tactics are taught from the start by managers in Italian football
It is no secret that many Italian teams and coaches pride themselves on being able to produce elite defensive units. This has been proven by the number of great defenders AC Milan and Juventus have produced in the past.
However, to even make it out of the youth academies, every young Italian defender must prove adept at playing any role asked of them.
Most Italian coaches took pride in setting their teams up to play with three central defenders in a five-man defensive system. As a result, the 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 5-3-2, and 5-4-1 formations were widely used by Italian managers in the 2000s/2010s.
Young defenders are trained to fit into these defensive systems from their teenage years, and they end up being well-rounded defenders.
Defenders receive strict instructions on how to go about their tasks
Italian coaches tend to be very specific in handing out marking roles to their defenders. For example, they expect each defender to be in charge of marking players within a particular region, which helps the defenders understand positioning.
The presence of strict rules of engagement while defending instils positional discipline in the defenders. This means that you will rarely catch a properly trained Italian defender out of position during games, as this is one of the earliest lessons they were taught.
Italian teams and managers pay great attention to playing with a “catenaccio” tactical system that emphasises defending correctly.
This system involved tactical discipline and the ability to cover up spaces by sitting deep and repelling opposition attacks.
Examples of great Italian defenders
Here are some examples of Italian defenders who are considered to be some of the best:
When a footballer has his jersey retired in his honour, it tells you the kind of impact he has had on the game.
For example, former AC Milan defender Franco Baresi was so good that the club retired his number 6 jersey after his retirement.
He made over 700 appearances for the club and mentored Paolo Maldini as he rose through the ranks.
Baresi was a proper no-nonsense old school defender who won nearly everything to win at the club and international level. He was voted as AC Milan’s Player of the Century in 1999, a testament to his impact at the club.
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Like Baresi, Alessandro Nesta turned out for AC Milan. The centre-back was one of the earliest ball-playing defenders in Italian football. He had the swagger and technical ability of the Brazilians and the tenacity and toughness of the Italians.
Nesta enjoyed great success early in his career before injuries started to plague him. He won the UEFA Champions League twice with AC Milan while forming a part of the toughest rearguard in Europe at the time.
After his father, Cesare, made his name as a legendary defender for AC Milan, Paolo Maldini decided to follow in his footsteps. The younger Maldini is also one of the most iconic defenders AC Milan has ever had.
He was capable of playing in central defence or on the left with equal effectiveness.
Maldini made over 900 appearances for the club in a career that spanned three different decades. He played for 25 seasons at AC Milan before retiring from the game, winning five European Cups/Champions League in his time at the club.
When a defender played for Napoli, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid at club level, it tells you a bit about the calibre of such a defender. In addition to playing for these sides, Fabio Cannavaro also captained Italy to glory in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
He is the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, having received the award in 2006.
Moreover, he is also only the third defender ever to claim the said honour.
Despite not being the tallest or biggest player on the pitch, Cannavaro managed to assert himself whenever he played, dominating opposition attackers.
A modern-day defensive icon, Giorgio Chiellini has made a name for himself as a rock-solid defender for club and country. He’s still going strong at 37 years old and only recently captained Italy to glory at Euro 2020.
Like Maldini, he is adept at playing as a centre-back and left-back. For a large part of his career, he played alongside Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at the club and international level.
Chiellini has earned considerable success playing for Juventus, with nine Scudetti to his name.
Italy has consistently produced high-quality defenders due to the kind of training and coaching the players receive from a very young age.
Coaches emphasise producing tight-knit defensive units, and for a player to be part of such a unit, he must be very good at defending.
Italian defenders are among the best in the world, and they pride themselves as such because defending is an art to them.
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