SSC Napoli – Juventus: Set Pieces Decide Top-Of-The-Table Clash In Serie A (1-2)
Napoli versus Juventus is typically built up to be Serie A’s big, top-of-the-table showdown, at least in terms of quality football. It did not fully live up to the hype. However, the drama and controversy of the clash nonetheless made for an enthralling encounter.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Carlo Ancelotti only felt the need to make one adjustment to the side that crushed Parma 4-0 last weekend. Talisman Lorenzo Insigne, was reintroduced in place of Dries Mertens up front. Otherwise, same names, same 4-4-2 system.
Max Allegri’s constantly-alternating eleven saw four changes from the side that beat Bologna 1-0 last time out. João Cancelo dropped from the right of midfield into his favored right-back position, as Emre Can took up a role in a midfield three with Mattia de Sciglio making way. Elsewhere, there were returns for first team regulars, Miralem Pjanić, Giorgio Chiellini and Wojciech Szczęsny.
Unsettled start results in midfield tussle
With both sides focusing their attacks down the same flank, it was hardly surprising to see a lot of congested plays with little attacking success. The two differing setups did, however, make for an intriguing tussle.
Napoli’s 4-4-2 formation quickly shifted to a more fluid 4-3-3. The omnipresent Fabián Ruiz could usually be found occupying the left-back slot as the home side formed a ‘W’ shape across the back in their buildup phase. Inside of the highly positioned Elseid Hysaj, were a crowd of attackers. Between them there were constant vertical interchanges, so finding different options for the ball-holder was never much of a problem.
In opposition to this was Juve’s 4-3-3 formation – well, 4-4-2, depending on where Napoli were. In their high press, Federico Bernardeschi joined the front line to create the 4-3-3 shape. Each line of Juve’s defense seemed to have a mind of its own.
Each side’s congested 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 shapes with and without the ball.
The two center-forwards were somewhat detached from the main defensive block, and were positioned slightly towards the far side – Mario Mandžukić offered the greater helping hand. The aforementioned midfield four squished together whilst, in stark contrast, the back-four stretched themselves out to account for the width Kévin Malcuit held on the far-side.
Juve crowding out the space on the corner of the home side’s box meant they could quickly react to and close down Napoli’s constant vertical interchanges. It became a mini four-versus-four arena, almost. One that obviously worked in the away side’s favor since Napoli had no room in which to operate.
Ancelotti’s men did attempt plenty of switches to the right side to target less crowded areas but they hampered their own threat of stretching Juve by offering next to no support to Malcuit. The fullback was unthreatening in one-versus-one duels with Alex Sandro and so Napoli casually shifted it back across.
Napoli’s passmap underlines how much control they had over the center of the pitch.
Despite Juve’s early control, there was a small warning sign. On one occasion, Arkadiusz Milik made a late run into the box and was quite easily found by Insigne’s trademark, in-swinging, lofted through ball. The space between Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini was big because of how stretched out Juve’s back-four was.
The shape that resulted from tracking all these movements favored Juve in their attempts to escape Napoli’s counterpress. Albeit not clean, the staggered midfield structure, along with Mandžukić’s cooperation, gave the visitors options to use to combine out of tight areas with. So, it was not so much of a surprise that they had their fair share of the ball, too.
In Juve’s own attempts to attack, the deepest members of Juve’s buildup would persistently target balls along the ground into the space between the lines. Napoli’s high-intensity, high-pressing approach often left big stretches of space to be exploited within and behind the midfield. From here, the receiving player would look to lay it off to a nearby teammate and spread it wide – usually to Bernardeschi, who shifted to a number ten position in possession – though Juve never did manufacture many good crosses via this method.
Panic mainly distributed it from flank to flank, while the fullbacks did most of the ball progressing.
Juventus flip the match in their favor with two set piece goals
Having seen the ball brought back to him after Napoli’s corner was cleared, young goalkeeper Alex Meret needlessly played a short, inviting pass out to Malcuit. The Frenchman was unalert to Mandžukić’s oncoming press and, with Napoli not having fully reset yet, Malcuit was forced back to Meret. His pass, however, was poorly weighted and so Cristiano Ronaldo latched onto it. The star man rounded Meret before being taken down. Meret was subsequently sent off. To make matters worse, the free kick given away was coolly converted by Pjanić.
Napoli, surprisingly, were quick to bounce back. Having taken off Arkadiusz Milik so David Ospina could take over the reigns in goal, Piotr Zieliński was looking to be the direct threat through the middle. That threat quickly proved real as a sweeping ball down the channel from Fabián located the Polish midfielder. Now through on goal, he slid it across goal where it agonizingly rebounded out off of the far post. So nearly an equalizer in next to no time.
Then, with what appeared to be an early final nail on the coffin – Emre Can put his name down on the scoresheet. A simple short corner routine; Bernardeschi whipped the ball inward; Hysaj was caught ball-watching; Can capitalized and found the net. 0-2. Two set piece goals, much like what the numbers had already shown to be Juve’s dominant area of play.
Whirlwind start to the second half changes the stakes
Ancelotti felt he needed to gamble in this half. Mertens was the first port of call, replacing Malcuit. Napoli were now playing a back-three in possession. Hysaj returned to his favored right side as the two wide center-backs – him and Kalidou Koulibaly, but Hysaj in particular – were widely encouraged to push up in support of the wide attacks.
And, if the hosts needed a helping hand, they got one… Literally. Pjanić – Juve’s only previously booked player – was penalized for a handball and so he got his marching orders. All levelled up numbers-wise, there was a resurgence from the crowd that reignited this game back into life.
Napoli’s control from that point forwards was unrelenting. Juve were, however, guilty of allowing that to be the case.
By dropping into a 4-4-0-1, where Mandžukić was back as part of the midfield and the midfield line stretched across, Allegri’s side could not get near the ball. Allan and Fabián sat in the middle and helped shift it from side-to-side. No longer was it down the left only, Napoli were attacking down both sides constantly. Still, their most promising openings came through Insigne down the left. Because of Juve’s spaced out and flat midfield structure, along with Ronaldo’s isolation, Allegri’s side had no escape through combination play like they did in the opening period.
Ten men Napoli pen in ten men Juventus.
The attackers for the home side were really well positioned within Juve’s block, holding the channel between the center-back and fullback on each side, thus preventing them from closing down the flanks so easily. This also meant they had strong numbers attacking the box. Napoli had all the time in the world to get it wide to Insigne – who essentially played as a wing-back in this wide position – who could cut in and whip in dangerous, diagonal balls. And there were continued signs of them exploiting the gaps in the central channels still.
An hour in, it finally paid dividends as another Insigne delivery was met just behind Chiellini by José Callejón. Napoli were right back in the mix.
Juve, much like Napoli in the first half, had their chance to pull the momentum back in their favor. After some scrappy play in-between the lines, Sandro managed to get it across to Ronaldo. With nobody to the side of Koulibaly now, Bernardeschi’s overlap was completely open but Ronaldo greedily held onto the ball and had his hopeful shot blocked.
Then, with less than ten minutes left, a video-referred call for handball resulted in a penalty for Napoli. Insigne with the chance to level the score… and a chance he could not take. It was another effort that bounced back out off of the post.
Napoli reached Zone 14 with ease, but never even once managed to pass it into the box from there.
Allegri’s late, attacking changes, restore some control
Paulo Dybala was the man to call upon now. By having him substituted on, Juve began to come out of their shell a bit more, forming the kinds of high-pressing and high-energy shapes that had been present in the first half. Because of this, they were now closing down Napoli much more quickly and aggressively and were blocking off the left-side due to their vertically narrow shape. Although it did not lead to any good counterattacking chances, they managed to steady the tide and killed any attacking momentum the home side had. In the end it turned out that Juventus only registered a single shot after their second goal, a blocked Cristiano Ronaldo effort from outside the box.
Juve all but confirm another Scudetto with this crucial victory away to their main threat for the league title. No doubt with a healthy handing of luck – even in spite of what went Napoli’s way – they got the result they needed.
Hugely disappointing for Ancelotti’s side, who undoubtedly deserved to get something out of that but could not take the opportunities they presented themselves with.
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