Juventus – Napoli: Juventus Survive Epic Second Half Comeback From Napoli Thanks To Fortunate Own Goal (4-3)

Juventus dominated the entire first half, with Higuaín scoring a highlight goal that seemed to break Napoli’s will. Ronaldo appeared to have sealed the victory in the second half, but Napoli fought back through set pieces and the brilliance of Zielinski and Lozano. Just when the game looked destined to end in a draw, Koulibaly scored an own goal and gifted Juventus the victory.

Tactical analysis and match report by Om Arvind

Despite winning their eighth Serie A title in a row in 2018/19, the Juventus faithfuls ended the season with a bitter taste in their mouths due to a Champions League Quarter-Finals defeat to Ajax. To many fans, Massimiliano Allegri had reached the ceiling of what could be achieved with his “pragmatic” tactical style, leading to a parting of ways and the hiring of Maurizio Sarri. The managerial change was accompanied with some key transfers: center-back prodigy Matthijs de Ligt, right back Danilo, central midfielders Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey, and striker Gonzalo Higuaín.

Each transfer was meant to fill a key need in the squad while fitting the larger vision of Sarri’s expansive attacking philosophy as well. de Ligt is being heralded as the star replacement for Juventus’ aging defense, which is why it was no surprise to see him starting versus Napoli ahead of the critically injured Giorgio Chiellini. Higuaín, though no young spring chicken himself, understands Sarriball well from his time at Napoli and Chelsa, and possesses the skillset to dovetail well with Ronaldo. He, too, got a start, leaving Matuidi’s presence as the only surprise in the team selection. One would imagine that Rabiot is a better fit for Sarri’s emphasis on close interplay, but other factors must be taken into consideration, as there may be worries over defensive stability this early into the Sarriball process.

By contrast, there was little surprise in Carlo Ancelotti’s starting eleven. The Italian started every single player – bar Mario Rui – who starred in the thrilling 4-3 victory over Fiorentina in a 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1 formation. Lorenzo Insigne played in his customary position on the left, supporting lone striker Dries Mertens and ‘number ten’ Fabian Ruiz.

Juventus score two early goals in rapid succession to put themselves in the driver’s seat

Juventus started the game with most of the ball and were immediately tested by Napoli’s high press.

Napoli’s high press versus Juventus’ buildup.

Given the presence of Matuidi on the left and the superior technical skill of Sami Khedira and Douglas Costa on the opposite side of the pitch, Juventus generally chose to build down their right. In order to match Juventus’ numerical superiority in midfield, Ancelotti had José Callejón pinch inwards and stick close to Matuidi. This allowed Zielinski to step out of midfield and close down deep-lying playmaker Miralem Pjanić.

Juventus reacted by bringing Sandro deeper and narrower, which served two purposes: it provided greater defensive stability in the event of a turnover and allowed Bonucci to move closer to the touchline. The latter consequence shortened the distances between Juventus’ passing triangles on the right wing, theoretically making it easier to execute rapid-fire sequences.

But Ancelotti’s tight marking scheme neutralized Juventus’ combination play in the opening minutes, forcing Juventus to constantly switch play to Sandro. This largely failed to expose Napoli, due to the left back’s deep positioning. Aside from one occasion in the third minute, when Ronaldo got off a shot from range on the counterattack, Napoli had enough time to shift attention to their right flank and adjust their shape.

With Juventus not hitting their stride in slow possession play, the breakthrough came on the counterattack. After a Napoli corner in the fifteenth minute, Juventus broke free in a three-versus-one situation. Costa carried the ball upfield and cut inside to lay the ball off to Danilo. The right back, who had just come on for the injured De Sciglio, made no mistake and converted from close range.

Minutes later, Juventus had another one – this time from an attack against a set defense. After play had stalled following a short free kick, Juventus restarted their buildup deep on their right. As Napoli rushed forward to press, Zielinski declined to mark Pjanić, allowing the Bosnian to receive the ball from Danilo. The playmaker slotted a pass into Khedira, who was making a third man run, A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. and Higuaín dutifully dropped between the lines to connect play to the opposite flank. Ronaldo received and dallied on the ball just long enough for Sandro to make an overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. run. Once the left back received the ball, he immediately played a pass into the underlapping Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. Matuidi, whose delivery deflected into the path of Higuaín. In a moment of genius, the former Napoli striker spun around, faked a shot, chipped the ball over Koulibaly’s foot, and volleyed a shot into the top corner.

Napoli mount a weak response as Khedira almost scores a third

Napoli fired off six shots from the period between Juventus’ second goal and the end of the first half, but none were of high quality. All of them were outside the box, reflecting the desperation with which Napoli played and the lack of cohesion in their attack. This was a curious set of events that is likely explained by mental factors, since Ancelotti’s attacking scheme looked fundamentally sound.

Despite his formation being 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 on paper, it looked far more like 3-4-3 when Napoli had the ball. Right back Di Lorenzo was positioned in a conservative manner, creating a situational back three where Callejón and Ghoulam held the team’s width. This allowed Insigne and Ruiz to occupy the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. creating a five man attack versus Juventus’ four-man back line.

Nevertheless, Napoli failed to string basic passes together and looked completely out of sync. Insigne and Mertens, who have developed excellent chemistry over the years, could not seem to find each other and initiate combinations.

Napoli’s passmap shows a complete lack of passing connections between Insigne and Mertens.

Credit must also be given to Juventus’ defensive scheme – a 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. that lent itself to opportunistic pressing. Matuidi, Pjanić, and Khedira aggressively pressured Napoli’s midfield line as each player received the ball, giving Ancelotti’s men very little time to find a progressive passing option. Since Ronaldo and Higuaín did very little off-the-ball work, there was always a forward option as soon as Juventus won the ball back.  

That aforementioned “opportunistic pressing” materialized around the half hour mark, setting up Khedira for a one-versus-one chance that he fired straight at Meret.

Ancelotti makes impactful substitutions but Juventus build on their lead

Ancelotti tried one small change in the first half after going down 2-0 – swapping Ruiz and Zielinski’s positions. It seemed to have little effect, but Ancelotti must have seen enough from Zielinski to play him in the all-important area in Napoli’s system – the left halfspace. This shift occurred immediately after half-time and pushed Insigne to the bench, with new signing Hirving Lozano replacing him. Mario Rui also came on, but it was for a standard swap with Ghoulam.

Napoli’s new look in the second half.

The effect was clear. Supplemented by what was likely a rousing half-time talk, Zielinski made a nuisance of himself with his movement between the lines. This finally made Ruiz’s move to a deeper position beneficial, as it gave the silky midfielder a target to fire passes into. Zielinski’s transfer to Insigne’s position had a similar consequence for Koulibaly, who began to assert his influence on the game with his vertical passes and line breaking runs.

Within nine minutes, Napoli had produced three shots – two from the left-hand side of the box and one for a free Mertens just outside the eighteen. But, in the 61st minute, Juventus created another excellent opportunity through their opportunistic pressing. Matuidi showed why he had been selected by displaying a ferocious work-rate that saw him block off Manolas’ passing lane before harassing Allan into losing the ball. Seconds later, Douglas Costa was bursting down the left wing and Cristiano Ronaldo was putting away his cut-back to make it 3-0.

Napoli come storming back but lose it at the death

Four minutes later, Allan pierced Juventus’ defensive structure with a vertical pass that found Zielinski in the left halfspace. The Polish midfielder spun away from Bonucci on the half-turn and drew a foul. Mario Rui made the most of the situation and delivered a sumptuous free kick that Kostas Manolas turned in to reduce the deficit to two.

Before Juventus could process what had happened, Napoli had scored a second. Zielinski, again, was the star man. On this occasion, he dropped deeper into the left halfspace to link up with Allan and Rui, before making a run down the left wing. He soon received the return pass from Allan and squared a ball into the path of Lozano, who had been left open by the sleeping de Light. Napoli’s record signing made no mistake and converted the tap-in.

Napoli’s influence in the halfspaces was very clear.

Just as things were slowing down for Napoli – Juventus were shrinking into a deeper defensive shape in an attempt to prevent a total collapse – Lozano made another impact. This time, it was him who was found in the halfspace, and he swiftly cut past a helpless de Ligt before being fouled by Alex Sandro. Callejón stepped up, delivered a beautiful lofted ball, and Di Lorenzo made it 3-3 at the far post.

Juventus, desperate to save themselves from the embarrassment of dropping a three-goal lead, surged forward but failed to create quality chances. Then, in the 91st minute, they got a free kick of their own and produced a poor delivery that strayed far away from Ronaldo. It still needed clearing, however, and Koulibaly – the best defender in the league – stepped forward and sliced the ball into his own net. Fitting end to a game that can only be described as ‘utter madness’.


It is hard to know how much can be concluded from only the second matchday of the Serie A season. Fans who are desperate to see another Italian champion can look at Juventus’ second half performance as evidence that the Old Lady has lost its focus in the league. They might argue that the team’s attention is fully directed at the Champions League instead. But that would ignore their strong first half performance and Sarri’s drive to capture a crown he came so close to in 2017/18. 

Perhaps it is better to simply compliment Ancelotti and Napoli. The Italian coach, often uncredited for his tactical skills, identified Zielinski as the game changer and moved him into the left halfspace, brought off the underperforming Insigne for the talented Lozano, and watched as his tactics inspired a three-goal comeback. It was simply bad luck that saw an own goal give Juventus the win.

Nevertheless, what was not bad luck was Napoli’s defensive performance. Ever since the second half of last campaign, they have become steadily weaker at defending defensive transition and their 4-4-2 pressing has often looked vertically uncompact and incapable of protecting wide areas. Versus Fiorentina in the opening game, they conceded three goals, just as they did versus Juventus. This is something that Ancelotti has to address if Napoli are to have any hope of doing the impossible: winning the league.

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Om Arvind (21) is a massive Real Madrid fan who works as a Managing Editor for managingmadrid.com. When not watching and writing about his beloved Los Blancos and contributing to Between the Posts, he spends his time crafting video analyses for the youtube channel The School of Real Madrid. He adores deep-lying playmakers, something that was molded by his time watching the likes of Xabi Alonso. [ View all posts ]


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