There’s been plenty of debate around the Italian national team after the friendly with the Germans. Should the Azzurri play with a trident, or with two forwards? Which men should compose the midfield, and is Thiago Motta a legitimate part of this team? The defence, of course, has been under intense (and mostly enthusiastic) scrutiny as well. The most heated line of debate, at present, regards the question of whether Giorgio Chiellini should be played at left-back or centre-back, and who should take his place in either of the two positions. If he plays on the left, then is the central pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia reliable enough?
The speculations around this question have been so meticulous, so finical even, it comes as a surprise a very important variable should be getting overlooked. The name of that variable is Davide Astori, 24 year old central defender of Cagliari, called up, but not fielded, by Cesare Prandelli for the last friendly.
Tall, technically gifted, and highly reliable, Astori is the prime bastion of a Rossoblu defence which has conceded, so far this year, less goals than teams like Inter or Juventus (27 and 30 respectively to Cagliari’s 26), despite having far less of a distributed general talent. It would be good to keep in mind here the Juventus defence is composed of those very players which currently make up the backline of the national team. Like Inter prodigy Ranocchia, Astori has been defined the new Nesta, although the homage owes more to the fact he grew up in the Milan primavera than to his technical merits. Nesta is more physical, used to halting his adversaries by sheer material presence, while Astori’s talents are based on timing and calculation (he is, for instance, a specialist of sliding tackles). Both are adept at intercepting balls played low, and both suffer somewhat with aerial play, although Astori compensates his lesser physicality with a greater elevation on the jump.
Astori started playing in Cagliari under Coach Pierpaolo Bisoli, a master of catenaccio the likes of which are rare even in Italy (so much so that over twelve games, he picked up four 0-0 results and lost three times by 1-0 with goals at the last minute). Although the first year was not particularly salient, incoming and current Coach Roberto Donadoni patently benefited from Bisoli’s work, and so did Astori. The young defender’s performances last season were of a very high standard, so much so that his first call-up by Prandelli came as early as last August – evidence his skills are not being overlooked by the Azzurri manager. Cagliari may not have very bright prospects for growth, after having given away their best striker, Alessandro Matri, to Juventus, but their defence should prevent them from falling to any real danger zone, at least for the time being.
The fact Astori plays for Cagliari is arguably one of the main reasons he has been receiving so little attention by the media, but the centre-back is owned partly by Milan, and reports are he is going to be taken back to Milanello next season. This is no guarantee of a starting spot, of course, but with Nesta increasingly aging and in pain, the possibilities of seeing Astori affirm himself are substantial. At 24, the Cagliari defender still has space for growth, and if he does start playing for Milan, it is highly likely we will see him with la Nazionale again. After all, Prandelli seems to know what he has in his hands.
Fans have been delighted to witness what has been called a ‘resurgence’ of the Italian central defence. Stories of these kind are usually exaggerated in popular perception, but for this one time, the phenomenon may actually be understated. The Italian defence is even richer than fans suppose. Although Astori’s future will be conditioned heavily by what the Milan giants decide to do on the mercato next summer, if the conditions are favourable he could well become a new competitor for Bonucci, Ranocchia and Chiellini to fight out the spaces in the central defence. At the very least, he will provide an excellent fourth option. A resurgence indeed.