Ranking the Top 10 Centre-Backs in Serie A
Perhaps more than anything else, Italian football is associated with defense.
Birthplace of the legendary catenaccio, Italy excelled at grinding out victories, using their near-impenetrable system to win multiple World Cups.
That defensive emphasis has permeated the Italian top flight, and while Serie A football has more goals in it than popular opinion would dictate, Italy is still home to some of Europe's foremost centre-halves.
Let's take a look at the 10 best central defenders in Serie A.
Since the 2014-15 campaign is still in its infancy, each player will be solely analyzed based on last season's performance, including World Cup play where applicable.
In order to be eligible for this list, a player must have made at least 20 league appearances last season and have made a majority of those appearances at centre-back, per WhoScored.com positional data.
Defenders who moved to Italy over the summer, but didn't play in Serie A last season, were considered. However, if a defender did play in Italy last season but moved to another league over the summer, said defender is ineligible.
In the interest of making these rankings as objective as possible, statistics will be used. However, don't expect to be inundated with statistical mumbo-jumbo, we'll cogently provide the conclusions drawn from all those numbers.
Stefan Savic, Fiorentina
Savic is a monster in the air and reads the game very well, exhibiting sound positional sense and a composed head in possession.
Though most known for being the makeweight in the Matija Nastasic deal, Savic has flourished under Vincenzo Montella and, despite flying under the radar, has become one of the best young centre-backs in Europe.
Stefan de Vrij, Lazio
He looked poor against Milan in his Serie A debut, but De Vrij—along with partner Ron Vlaar—was immense for a Netherlands side that looked surprisingly resolute in Brazil.
Lazio won the race for the 22-year-old's signature and, having started in his debut, he seems to have already emerged as a top option for Stefano Pioli.
At Feyenoord, De Vrij had become arguably the top defender in the Eredivisie, and if he can build on a strong summer for Holland, Lazio could have themselves a contender for signing of the season.
Milanisti will hope that Thiago Silva imparted what it takes to excel at the San Siro to his former teammate.
Milan's back line was really poor last year, and the former Chelsea man will surely see major minutes as Filippo Inzaghi's tries to rebuild the Rossoneri defense.
He had a strong 2013-14 campaign with PSG and even with his best years behind him, Alex is a wall at the back. He's the mistake-free passer Milan's back line sorely needed, is imperious in the air and has invaluable veteran savvy.
Hugo Campagnaro, Inter
After an exceptional tenure under Walter Mazzarri at Napoli, Campagnaro followed his manager to Inter and picked up right where he left off.
Campagnaro is a heady defender who jumps passing lanes, picking up possession and turning defense into offense with his characteristic forward runs.
A very accurate tackler, the Argentinean international committed a mere 10 fouls on the year.
Age hasn't slowed him down yet and look for Campagnaro to have a big year as the Nerazzurri mount an assault on the Champions League places.
Gonzalo Rodriguez, Fiorentina
The second Viola defender to get a mention, Savic's running mate had a fine season of his own.
Rodriguez is strong in the air and in the tackle, though perhaps too much so in the latter—his 13 yellow cards were fifth-most in the league and the primary reason he's outside of the top 10.
A reliable passer who reads the game tremendously well, the former Villarreal star was instrumental in helping Fiorentina to a Europa League place.
10. Alessandro Lucarelli, Parma
Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?
At the age of 37, the Serie A journeyman enjoyed a career year in his 18th season as a professional.
The primary reason he isn't higher on this list is that he racked up a ton of bookings last term. He received 14 yellow cards—second only to Chievo's Bostjan Cesar—and picked up a red card to boot, taking his season total to 15, also second most in Serie A.
Even with his poor disciplinary record, one cannot exclude Parma's defensive leader.
9. Andrea Ranocchia, Inter
Andrea Ranocchia has really come into his own over the past two seasons, and his emergence was rewarded when he was granted Javier Zanetti's vacated captaincy.
Ranocchia's playing time suffered from the timeshare with Rolando and Juan Jesus, but he was excellent in his 24 league matches.
A towering presence, Ranocchia uses his size to win header after header. Whether he's putting in a crunching tackle or impeding shooting lanes, the Italian international has a nose for the ball and is always involved.
New Italy boss Antonio Conte is a known proponent of the central-defensive triumvirate, so Ranocchia could be in line for more call-ups given his familiarity with Walter Mazzarri's three-man back line.
8. Davide Astori, Roma
Roma's new boy was left off Cesare Prandelli's World Cup squad, but upon Antonio Conte's appointment as Azzurri boss, Davide Astori was immediately called up and handed an important start.
The former Cagliari partnered Leonardo Bonucci in Italy's recent Euro 2016 qualifier, a 2-0 win over Norway.
Like his defensive partner in the Norway match, Astori spreads the ball to all areas of the pitch and provides great offensive output from his defensive position.
He excels at snuffing out play—his 8.3 clearances per game were second in the league last term—and has a knack for getting in front of opponents' shots.
Kostas Manolas and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa were the two other centre-backs Rudi Garcia brought in over the summer, and while Manolas looks a major talent, my money is on Astori winning the spot alongside Leandro Castan, whom we'll see later.
7. Leonardo Bonucci, Juventus
Though Martin Caceres and Angelo Ogbonna present tremendous competition, Leonardo Bonucci has never wavered and remains one of Italian football's top central defenders.
Bonucci is a first-rate passer for a defender, always looking to play a long diagonal and start the Bianconeri attack. Like each of Juve's central defenders, Bonucci has perfected the 10-yard pass and completed over 90 percent of his passes.
Flanked by Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, Bonucci swept up the danger in front of Gianluigi Buffon as Juve's back line conceded the fewest league goals last season, just like they did in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 campaigns.
With Conte now in charge of the Azzurri, Bonucci should be set for an increased role as the Chiellini-Bonucci-Barzagli trio has been one of Serie A's, and world football's, best for years.
6. Raul Albiol, Napoli
Raul Albiol was going nowhere at Real Madrid and made the difficult, yet correct decision in leaving arguably the biggest club in Europe.
Last season was his first with Napoli, and he immediately curried Rafa Benitez's favor, featuring in 32 league matches.
He was vital for a defense that conceded 39 goals on the year, an average of just over one per game and a record that tied Napoli with Inter as Serie A's third-best defense in terms of goals conceded.
A solid all-around defender, Albiol doesn't excel in any one area but mixes veteran composure, accurate tackling and extensive passing range.
At 29 years old, Albiol will be Napoli's central-defensive anchor for the next few seasons as the Partenopei continue to challenge Juventus and Roma for Serie A supremacy.
5. Nemanja Vidic, Inter
Nemanja Vidic brought his storied Manchester United career to an end of the summer when he signed for Inter on a Bosman, adding to Mazzarri's wealth of quality at the back.
The 32-year-old was still dominating opposing forwards in the air in his 15th season, averaging the third-most aerial duels won among Premier League defenders.
A five-time Premier League winner, the hard-nosed Serbian was eager to quell a threat and averaged the second-most clearances per Premier League match.
Mazzarri was able to rotate Juan Jesus, Rolando, Hugo Campagnaro and Andrea Ranocchia in his central-defensive triumvirate, so adding a player of Vidic's repute will be buoyed by Inter's involvement in the Europa League.
An ideal role model for Juan and Ranocchia, Vidic will impart professionalism and the veteran tricks of the trade he's picked up along the way. Look for Inter's already impressive concession rate to improve with Vidic now on board.
4. Danilo, Udinese
"Unsung hero" is the first phrase that comes to mind when describing Udinese's Danilo.
The Udine outfit finished a disappointing 13th last season, but the Brazilian enjoyed himself a fine season as the most durable defender in Italy.
Danilo was a more wayward passer than any of our top 10, but that statistic is skewed by the higher degree of difficulty of the passes he plays—his passes averaged the fourth-longest distance among Serie A defenders.
Powerful in the air and quick to clear danger, the 30-year-old is to the Zebrette defense what club legend Antonio Di Natale is to the offense.
3. Andrea Barzagli, Juventus
That he's still underrated by many isn't a huge surprise considering his superstar status began, in earnest, just three years ago.
That was when Barzagli moved to Juventus and flourished under the tutelage of Antonio Conte, following the tactician's appointment for the 2011-12 season.
Barzagli is one of the most cerebral defenders on the planet and uses superior anticipation to remain perpetually well-positioned.
He isn't a brutish tackler or a physical specimen, but Barzagli refuses to be pushed off the ball and is a nightmare to get around, which is especially impressive because he isn't what you'd call fleet of foot.
Unspectacular, albeit a defensive genius, the 33-year-old's playing style means he could remain one of the world's elite for next few years.
2. Leandro Castan, Roma
Perhaps a bit of a surprise here at No. 2, Castan is still relatively new to Serie A having arrived in Rome from Corinthians just two seasons ago.
A vital member of the league's second-best defense in terms of goals conceded, Castan is a safe distributor and precise tackler.
Using Squawka's Comparison Matrix, we can see how Castan stacked up against Benatia and realize just how similar their seasons were, with the only major difference being Benatia's heading acumen.
Castan will now be the unequivocal leader of Roma's central defense and will need to be immense as the new signings are integrated into Rudi Garcia's back line.
One of the favorites to take home the 2014-15 Scudetto, the Giallorossi will need another big season from their Brazilian international if they are to usurp incumbent champions Juventus.
1. Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus
World Cup 2014 wasn't his finest moment, but Giorgio Chiellini remains the best centre-back on the peninsula.
With an unmatched mix of physicality and football IQ, Chiellini is a rock at the back for both Juventus and Italy.
Always a danger on set pieces, the 30-year-old is a force in the air and displays an assured passing touch, which allows him to funnel possession to the indomitable midfield trio of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal.
Bonucci gets most of the credit for being the creative force at the back, but it was Chiellini who racked up three assists, tops in the league among centre-backs, and an upper-tier mark in key passes as well.
Chiellini is one of those unique players with no glaring holes in his game, and every weekend he gives us the chance to see an absolute master of his craft.