European Football

Serie A Team of the Season Part 1: The Defense

The Italian Job…

Welcome to the final week of the Team of the Season series, after a slight delay, where we will be covering the final league of this series: the Italian Serie A.

With a new champion for the first time in a decade, Serie A was one of the most interesting leagues from top to bottom. This was true especially at the top, where quite a bit of changing and moving among the top four meant AC Milan went from league leaders to narrowly finishing in the top four, while Inter rallied from early season struggles to run away with the league and Juventus struggled to find consistency at all during the season, only narrowly qualifying for the Champions League. And meanwhile, Atalanta quietly hung around, less flashy than before but not lacking any substance. Sure, it did not have the title race that France or Spain had, but it was no less interesting, and the competitive nature of especially the top of the league is reflected in this fairly diverse Team of the Season.

Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)

Ah, the man of the moment. The man who is now a free agent, who will not be returning to Milan next season. Maybe one of the most wanted men in world football right now, the best young goalkeeper we have seen in a while. But that is a story for another day, we talk about him as a player now.

It’s easy to forget about how ridiculous of a player and prospect that Donnarumma is, since he has been in the public eye for basically five or six years. Yet he is only 22, one of the best goalkeepers in the world at present moment and he is only 22. That should not be a thing, he is a transcendent player and it seems like we are not fully embracing that fact, maybe it is due to how long he has been a first team player or maybe due to Milan’s struggles in past years. But it is time to fully appreciate just how good Donnarumma is, especially since he will not be playing for his boyhood club next season.

Donnarumma is a very competent athlete in goal, able to make incredible reflex saves and use the most of his 6’5″ frame. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet, and his football IQ is fairly advanced for a player of his age. He has gotten to the point where he can be joint-leader in clean sheets in the league at his age and with a less than great defense ahead of him. He also makes a decent amount of saves for a goalkeeper playing on a top tier team in Serie A. And he is only 22, playing in a position where most of the players hit their athletic peak at around age 30. He is only going to get significantly better, and he is already a top tier goalkeeper in Europe and a starter for the Italian National Team. This is all very ridiculous, something that none of us are appreciating enough. He is easily the best goalkeeper in Italy, and if he leaves for a bigger club in the summer, he will become much more appreciated than he currently is.

Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)

Any time a defender is among the top three in assists in a league, that is very notable and likely worthy of a team of the season inclusion. Cuadrado, the once-winger-turned-fullback, has been an offensive dynamo for the Bianconeri this season, bombing forward from the right and combining with the attack to make things happen. It might be a sign of the flaws in the Juve team that their leading assister was their right back, but it at least reflects well on Cuadrado. The Colombian has reinvented himself and prolonged his career at the top, converting himself from an active and creative winger to an athletic and energetic fullback, filling a necessary void in the Juve team.

And this position change has seemingly brought out the best in Cuadrado. He is in a position where he is able to combine the things that made him great as a winger with an athleticism and energy level that has seemingly retained despite his age. While he was not good enough to be an elite level winger for Juventus or other clubs, he has definitely shown the ability to be elite in the fullback position in Serie A. Now, do not get me wrong, he is not a clamp-down high level defensive player by any means, but he is good enough to get by when on form. That’s not really why you would play him either, because you have to know that the offensive contribution he brings can outweigh the few mistakes defensively he has made. Especially in a Juventus team that has at times been offensively disheveled, to put it politely, Cuadrado’s ability to still rack up double-digit assist numbers from fullback is pretty impressive. It was a very difficult choice between him and Hakimi, but it had to be Cuadrado here.

Cristian Romero (Atalanta)

Boy, I bet Juventus really regret loaning him out with a buy option clause, huh?

Cristian Romero is the typical example to answer the question of just how Atalanta are able to remain this good for this long while operating on the relatively shoestring budget that they do. They are simply smarter than a lot of other clubs around them, and their loan-to-buy move for Juve’s Cristian Romero is simply another example of that. After two seasons of being fairly decent and somewhat promising for Genoa, one on loan from Juventus, the Bianconeri sent him to Bergamo on loan, and Atalanta were even able to add a fairly cheap buy option onto that loan.

The Argentinian responded by being nothing short of outstanding this season, maybe the revelation of the season in Serie A. A positionally sound and athletic defender, he seemingly has a lot of tools already needed to be a top tier center back. Comfortable to a degree on the ball, he has some of those “modern center back” traits, but the best part of his game is his fearlessness and defensive strength. Among the league leaders in tackles, interceptions, and aerial duels won, he has demonstrated every bit of what it takes to be a high level defensive player at the international level. And Atalanta will be able to activate a buy clause in the loan and sign him for €16 million. A steal of the highest degree, and at minimum, Atalanta will be able to earn double that in a transfer from an English or other rich team (Manchester United are reportedly interested). Romero is great. Fantastic player, great season, colossal mistake from Juve, lock for this team of the season.

Stefan De Vrij (Inter Milan)

The other center back position was always going to be a decision of “which Inter center back will be put into this position?” The Inter back three (or five sort of) was the best defense in the league this season according to many factors, mainly due to Inter’s lowest goals conceded number, and it is very hard to pick one of those three as the most outstanding. It is probably a choice that varies based on who you ask.

For me, it is Stefan De Vrij, someone who I also think has been very under-appreciated over the years. A budding star for Feyenoord and a consistently high-level player for Lazio, De Vrij has been incredibly solid for Inter since his arrival, and this season he has been arguably the best center back in the league (or the best that isn’t Romero). He is not as athletic as the Argentine, but he is quite simply an incredible defensive player. Strong positionally, strong in the tackle, strong in the air, there is seemingly nothing that he cannot do. Yes, he is another one of those players whose greatness does not necessarily translate to statistics, but go watch him. He is very impressive. He is not the vocal leader that Milan Škriniar is or the promising youngster that Alessandro Bastoni is, but he is a nice middle ground. A very good player in his prime while also being a quiet but composed leader, De Vrij is great. It is that simple. A hard choice over his teammates, but I believe he is deserving of a position.

Theo Hernández (AC Milan)

One of the best left backs in the world right now? Well, maybe.

Theo, for a while, seemingly lived in the shadow of his brother Lucas. He made his move to Real Madrid, which did not really work out, but he has since found his footing outside of Madrid and has really found a home in Milan. Stefano Pioli has crafted a system which allows the athletic and daring Hernández to fly forward and join the attack without putting their defense at risk, which directly plays into Theo’s strengths. He is rapid, very athletic, and very comfortable on the ball, able to combine with attacking players, swing in dangerous crosses, and even get forward enough to get into dangerous goalscoring positions himself.

Yes, this does come with the caveat that Milan’s second half of the season was significantly worse than their first half of the season. They went from league title contenders to narrowly making the Champions League. And that is sort of similar to Theo’s form, as he was untouchably good in the first half of the season but a little less so in the second half. He was not bad, not by any means, but he was outstanding in the first half of the season and could not keep that level. That first half of the season was capped off with his winning goal against Lazio two days before Christmas, a time when we really thought AC Milan was back. They still are, but it was unfortunately their rivals who ended the season top of the league. Despite that drop off, Theo was outstanding, deserving of all praise as one of Milan’s most important players of the season and likely the best left back in Serie A this season.

And there you have it, the back four of our Serie A Team of the Season. Agree with my picks? Think I left someone out? Let me know in the comments, and join us next time, when we will discuss our midfield three.

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