By Richard Hall (@Gentleman_Ultra)
From the moment ‘Gigi’ Buffon belted out Italy’s national anthem (the Inno di Mameli) to the moment the final whistle went, he was faultless. Italy had just beaten one of the favourites for Euro 2016 with a tactical master class that was born out of Turin and conducted by the veteran custodian. This performance by the 38 year-old will be lauded not simply for his ageless athletic ability but for the tactical acumen he exuded and executed throughout the game. It is this intelligent style of goalkeeping that not only potentially will add years to his career but also to see him act these out arguably the world’s best.
Whilst the collective team will take the plaudits for the unexpected result and Leonardo Bonucci’s performance will be rightly purred over, the goalkeeper should not be overlooked, as was not only a captain but a coach against Belgium. His game did not revolve around incredible saves like the one he made against Lukas Podolski in the 2006 semi-final or the magnificent double save he made in 2014 against Uruguay. In fact, he only had three shots against him that he had to make saves for and one of those was an early stinging shot from Radja Nainggolan that he dealt with easily turning the ball around the post as it bounced up difficulty of the wet turf. Other than this, a header in to his mid-rift and a shot down his throat from Eden Hazard were the sum of Belgium’s offerings but there was a reason for this.
Throughout the game Italy’s fluid changing of systems saw the play with either three of five at the back depending on whether they were attacking or not. When, as Antonio Conte promised they pressed high up the field the center backs pushed up leaving a huge gap at the back. Buffon, from the first minute acted as a sweeper similar to the way one would see Manuel Neuer do so for Germany. It is worth remembering that when ‘Gigi’ started out in Parma back in 1995 he would not have been schooled in this more modern version of goalkeeping and to have adapted to it so well in later life has shown his ability to keep learning and to change with the game. His defenders were allowed to follow the coach’s instructions confident that their custodian was not just secure in his job but excelling at it, a point proven as he splayed balls to the wings on receiving it in a manner only befitting of a man who has spent that much time with Andrea Pirlo.
His constant communication with his defenders, showed signs of a man there to encourage and praise rather than chastise as was seen when he positively tapped Giorgio Chiellini on the back of the head when he scuffed a clearance. The Juventus defender has said in a press conference pre-tournament that, “When the attacker beats us, when we get turned around, when we can see that he is about to stick it in the net and score, there is always a thought that ‘Maybe Gigi will save me.’ ” (Paulo Bandini)
More impressive was how the keeper operated under pressure as Belgium attacked and in turn how well versed he is with his back three. When Italy defended as a five, he took on a disciplined and unusual tact of operating almost solely in his six-yard box. As so many players were back and defending their zones he only came to claim balls in this area and subsequently caused no confusion with his center backs. When the ball was in their zone, they cleared when it was in his, they left it and he claimed it, simple? Certainly not. The discipline this takes and more so the trust takes not only years of practice but a development of a special bond. It is arguably why there are not many great defences these days as the need for success and the money in the game sees a quick turnover of players and a limited time to build these relationships.
The style itself of defending so deep more of a South American trait and one you may see should you watch River Plate or Santos per say. These goalkeepers sit very deep and rely on defenders to do much of this work which is why often South American goalkeepers struggle to adapt to the European game quickly. For example, wit will be interesting to see Roma’s new keeper Alisson, as he is young and has moved direct from Internacional to a defence that will play much higher up the pitch than many in Serie A do.
What Buffon is doing sounds simple but it most certainly is not. Whilst Neuer can play as a sweeper brilliantly, one may question if he has the discipline, should he ever be in a team that defends so deep he can only operate in a smaller zone. Samir Handanovic could certainly do the latter per say and has at Inter this year but his distribution further out is questionable. It is for this reason that Buffon is arguably still one of if not the world’s best goalkeepers. All he has to do now is learn how to celebrate and swing off a cross bar without falling off.