Leonardo Bonucci's shock Milan move could end Juventus' Serie A rule
When the news first broke about Leonardo Bonucci's potential move to AC Milan, Alessandro Del Piero spoke for many Juventus fans when he said: "I thought it was a joke."
Dripping in sweat after an all-star Italy side lost to Brazil at the Soccer Sixes in London, Del Piero couldn't believe it.
"It's very surprising. I would never have thought anything like this could happen," he told Sky Italia.
While Del Piero saw his teammate Pippo Inzaghi leave for Milan in 2001, he and Inzaghi had a strained on-field relationship, and Super Pippo was never a Juventus icon like Bonucci. This instead has the feel of a "reverse Pirlo": After a decade in red and black, the midfield maestro left San Siro for Juventus following a much publicised -- if overblown -- falling out with a certain Massimiliano Allegri. We'll circle back to that later.
On Wednesday night, the first reports began to emerge about Milan being awarded the opportunity to sign Bonucci. The centre-back's agent, Alessandro Lucci, has been a regular visitor to Casa Milan this summer. Lucci also represents midfielder Andrea Bertolacci (who is on the brink of move back to Genoa) and Juan Cuadrado, the Juventus winger who Vincenzo Montella used to coach and greatly admires. At most, Juventus fans wondered if the Colombian might be Milan-bound now that Federico Bernardeschi looks set to follow Douglas Costa to Turin.
What no one expected was the talk to turn to Bonucci, and the information thus far is that Lucci (and therefore Bonucci) himself suggested the move rather than Milan themselves making a cheeky inquiry.
After all, Milan have already spent €61m on a back line that boasts Matteo Musacchio, a centre-back partner for Alessio Romagnoli. The Rossoneri clearly had their heads turned by Lucci. Up until midweek, they were focused entirely on finalising a deal with Lazio for midfield playmaker Lucas Biglia, as well as signing a big name striker. Sometimes, however, talent trumps need. You take the best player available, regardless of position. And in this case, the chance to buy arguably the best centre-back in the world from one of your biggest rivals -- a team that you and everybody else in Italy wish to overhaul -- was simply too big to pass up.
Everything escalated rapidly, and the speed with which negotiations have progressed has taken everybody's breath away. Milan hope to have everything done on Friday so Bonucci and Biglia can join the team on tour in China this weekend. He will become their 10th signing of the summer, and the club sincerely hope that all the excitement generated in Yonghong Li's homeland will attract the investment and sponsorship needed to pay off the loans he took out in order to finance the takeover in the first place.
This is the biggest coup of the transfer window in Italy so far, and will likely define it. It has overshadowed Juventus' own purchase of Costa from Bayern Munich earlier this summer, and there was something chorus-like about the papers on Friday morning jointly declaring Milan "da Scudetto", or worthy of the title.
How, though, did it come to this?
If you forget the money involved -- which is another eyebrow-raising aspect of the transfer -- Bonucci's departure does feel like a "Pirlo moment". It's a move that has the potential to swing the title race away from the current Serie A champions, just as it did in 2011.
Why, then, are Juventus prepared to go through with it? He's a symbol of their renaissance, and the bedrock of Juventus' success over the last six years. Among outfield players, only Gonzalo Higuain clocked in more minutes in all competitions than Bonucci did last season. It's not like Allegri marginalised him as he did Pirlo in 2010-11. After Gigi Buffon, the 30-year-old is the biggest character on the team, and as if it were necessary to reinforce that view, Allegri told Sky Italia a fortnight ago: "Bonucci must only understand he is the future leader of the dressing room. He's an extraordinary player."
There was friction between player and manager last season, however. Bonucci and Allegri argued throughout the 4-1 win against Palermo in February, and the spat concluded with the former sprinting down the tunnel at the final whistle as though preparing for a confrontation.
Fed up with the centre-back (and other players) challenging his authority, Allegri seemed to make an example of Bonucci. According to La Repubblica, the manager threatened to resign if the club didn't back his decision to drop Bonucci from the match day squad ahead of a delicate trip to Porto. Juventus won 2-0, and the result was presented as no ordinary victory. In addition to putting one foot in the quarterfinals, Allegri reasserted himself as the top dog at the club.
The pair then put their differences aside for the good of the team. Bonucci was brought back into the fold and given the captain's armband for Juventus' next game. Yet the prevailing notion around the club was that come the summer, Juventus would likely be forced to pick between Allegri and Bonucci.
Reports of a bust-up at half-time during the Champions League final in Cardiff -- in which Bonucci took aim at Paulo Dybala and Andrea Barzagli questioned his centre-back partner's role in Real Madrid's first goal -- have been firmly denied. But La Stampa and others stood by the story. The idea of Bonucci leaving cropped up again shortly afterwards. He dismissed it as "just gossip", and Giorgio Chiellini insisted to RAI: "I bet what Leo wants is to stay at Juve."
Bonucci turned down Chelsea and Manchester City a year ago, signing a new contract until 2021 that made him the second-highest paid player at the club. Juventus could have raked in €60-65m for him then. They're now selling him for €40m.
The valuation seems off, even if Bonucci is a year older and now in his 30s. Kyle Walker is joining Man City for €62m. Milan will get one of the best centre-backs of this generation for less than what other clubs have paid for John Stones, David Luiz, Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala. It's unusual for Juve -- who routinely extract top money for their star players -- to be caught underselling a standout like Bonucci. An explanation might be that Bonucci wishes to remain in Italy for family reasons -- his son Matteo had a major health scare this time last year -- and this is the best offer they could attract.
What's not unusual is Juventus letting a player like Bonucci go. Two years ago, they moved on from Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal. Last year they said goodbye to Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata; this year it's Bonucci and Dani Alves. So far, sending stars away hasn't stopped them winning titles and reaching Champions League finals. The move to a 4-2-3-1 also means they don't need as many centre-backs as in the past, and besides, they have Daniele Rugani and Medhi Benatia in reserve. If needs be, they could always bring forward Mattia Caldara's move from Atalanta, although a bid for Lazio's Stefan de Vrij now looks in the cards.
Milan, meanwhile, get a winner -- the best Italian defender the club has had since Alessandro Nesta, worthy of the tradition of Maldini and Baresi. He's someone who can inspire a change in the culture at Milanello, develop Romagnoli, make plays from the back and score goals in big games. Bonucci still has a lot to give, and you have to say Milan's defence -- featuring Gianluigi Donnarumma, Andrea Conti and Romagnoli -- now contains the building blocks for the national team's back line every bit as much as Juventus' does.
As a signing, Bonucci's arrival only serves to lend more credibility to Milan's project. They have committed €216.5m in transfer fees (without being able to count on Champions League money), and will still attempt to sign one of Andrea Belotti, Nikola Kalinic or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang before the summer is done.
The Bonucci deal could very well be a game-changer for the Rossoneri. The gap between them and top dogs Juventus and Napoli has narrowed.
Now, the question is: by how much?
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.