What’s black and white and red all over?
It’s not a corny newspaper joke – although the journalist in me is giddy right now. The answer I’m looking for is Giorgio Chiellini.
Last month, the Italian defender played the final match of his 17-year Juventus career. He walked off the pitch the way he’d done so many times before. Blood dripped from his temple onto that famous black and white shirt. Mind you, he’d only played 45 minutes at that point.
I’ve covered LAFC since its inaugural season, both as a part of the club and now for 110 Football. But I’ve been a Juventus supporter since I became aware of football as a global sport. If you asked me to sum up Chiellini from my years watching him, I might just show you a photo of him from that final match.
That’s Giorgio. He’s a tangible form of the passion pumping from the stands in Turin to the North End on matchdays. When Italians speak of “grinta,” Google might as well display that same picture of Chiellini’s final match instead of an Italian to English translation.
And for a chunk of the fanbase wondering what to expect from Chiellini’s arrival to Los Angeles that might be enough. Add on that he’s a perennial winner – over 20 major trophies, including a run of 9 consecutive Serie A titles and the captain of the Italian side that won the Euros last year – and as a fan of the Black & Gold, you’re probably thinking you’ve seen enough.
But what does the former Juventus defender bring to LAFC on the pitch? That debate in MLS circles has been mixed. And quite frankly, has left a lot to be desired.
On the Max + Vince Podcast, LAFC SVP/Assistant GM Will Kuntz responded to people boiling Chiellini down to simply a “big, strong Italian defender.”
“I think if what you’re saying when Chiellini comes to mind is ‘big, strong Italian defender’ then I think you probably haven’t watched him play very much,” Kuntz said. “Obviously, he defends like a banshee. He is everywhere, he is hardnosed. You guys have seen it online, the different pictures of him with his head taped, blood pouring from every available spot. He is that type of warrior,
“But you can’t play 17 years at Juve, competing in the types of games that he has, without having to be really good on the ball. And his ability on the ball is a huge piece of what we see is additive when we bring him in.”
As someone that has watched A LOT of Chiellini, I concur with Kuntz’s assessment. But in case my fandom and Kuntz’s credentials aren’t enough to convince you, here’s some hard data.
According to StatsBomb data from FBref.com, Chiellini is measurably a very good passer. In fact, he’s elite for his position. Over the last 365 days, ranking amongst center backs in Europe’s Top 5 leagues and competitions, Chiellini is in the 96th percentile per 90 minutes played for progressive passes and key passes aka passes leading directly to a shot. Speaking of shots, he’s in the 97th percentile of center backs in shot-creating actions (passes, dribbles, defensive actions, etc. that lead to a shot) per 90 minutes as well.
Big, strong Italian defender? Sure. But if you find yourself in those Twitter trenches with opposing fans spouting off about high lines and humid Wednesday nights in Houston, you have my permission to copy and paste the paragraph above free of charge.
Like at Juve, Chiellini is being dropped into an LAFC side eager to use the ball to both hurt opponents on the score line but also to keep themselves from being hurt. Per FBref, LAFC ranks in the Top 6 in MLS in possession, touches in the attacking third, and touches in the opponent’s box.
Now, you’re starting to get a more accurate picture of how Chiellini and LAFC potentially fit together. But let’s not shy away from the haters. Let’s tackle that one bit they’re so eager to bring up.
Chiellini turns 38 in August. In its short history, LAFC has shied away from signing big names in the latter parts of their careers. His last season of over 2,000 minutes was 2017-2018. And the longest away trip in Serie A for Chiellini in recent years is about 535 miles – only San Jose and the Galaxy are shorter trips on LAFC’s schedule.
At face value, that would be more than a minor concern in this league. But a player of Chiellini’s experience and intellect – did I mention he has a Master’s in Business Administration? – takes the details very seriously. So, let’s start with the player first and then get into the team side of the conversation.
First off, back to Italy. Chiellini was not a free agent looking for one last payday. The defender had one year left on his deal with Juventus and both club and player intimated that if Italy had qualified for the World Cup that contract would have been honored by both sides.
Not a final money grab. Not a retirement. Maybe a new challenge, then? And one it sounds like Chiellini is more than prepared for?
“There’s always an adjustment period no matter where you’re coming from when it comes to this league. But thankfully, the heavy East Coast trips are all in the rearview mirror at this point in the season. Of course, Giorgio already knew that. He goes, ‘Oh, we don’t go to the East Coast anymore.’ He knew,” Kuntz said on the podcast regarding conversations he had with Chiellini on coming to MLS.
Not only was Chiellini aware of LAFC, but it also appears he’s been following the club closely from afar. And, of course, he’s right. Chiellini is eligible to play after the MLS Secondary Transfer window opens on July 7. LAFC will have exactly half of its regular season matches (17) remaining at that point. The longest trip remaining on the schedule is to Nashville, the second match Chiellini is eligible to play in – only one regular season match remaining is on turf (Portland 10/2) because I know you’re wondering.
Who’s to say Chiellini makes all those trips though? All signs point to LAFC taking a conservative approach, at least at first. “It’s going to be incumbent on all of us… to make sure we manage him,” Kuntz has already said.
Stepping back and looking at it from that perspective, maybe LAFC is the only team in the league that could pull this off? It’s one thing to be averse to ever signing an aging superstar and another to only sign the one that fits your project – I’ve yet to mention that Chiellini won’t be a Designated Player, allowing LAFC to still add in that spot this window.
That’s the luxury you can afford when you’re top of the Supporters’ Shield standings after 14 matches. And LAFC also aren’t hurting for center backs either.
Jesus David Murillo has been one of the best at his position this season. Mamadou Fall is easily the most exciting teenager at center back that this league has ever seen. Sebastien Ibeagha has stepped into high-leverage situations on numerous occasions already. Doneil Henry is a regular on a Canadian National Team headed to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. And Eddie Segura, a perennial Defender of the Year candidate is back in first-team training and nearing his 2022 debut after long-term injury.
Now, imagine what those center backs and the rest of the squad will gain from being with Chiellini each day on the training pitch and in the locker room. The impact of Chiellini’s intangibles has never been questioned.
As Kuntz put it succinctly, “I honestly think that if Giorgio doesn’t play a minute on the field for us, it will be worth it.”
Having seen what wasn’t able to keep Chiellini off the pitch over the years, I’m confident he’ll be there whenever LAFC calls. From bianconero to Black & Gold, I’ll still be watching.