Napoli are the main challengers to Juventus’s crown in Serie A this season and Saturday brought the first meeting between the two sides. The game was the epitome of the expression “a game of two halves” after Juve raced into a three-goal lead, only for Napoli to perform a spirited comeback to make it 3-3. In the dying minutes, Kalidou Koulibaly’s own goal decided the game in Juve’s favour. This tactical analysis will look at the main tactical trends from the game and why it ended as it did. This includes a look at Juventus’s attacking tactics, Napoli’s pressing scheme, Ancelotti’s second half changes and Juve’s new positional defensive style.
Juventus, coached by Giovanni Martusciello in Maurizio Sarri’s absence, started with almost the same side that beat Parma last week with Matthijs De Ligt replacing the injured Giorgio Chiellini as the only change. That meant Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi kept their places alongside Miralem Pjanić in midfield with Adrien Rabiot on the bench again.
Carlo Ancelotti made one change from the team that won 4-3 at Fiorentina on the opening weekend as Faouzi Ghoulam replaced Mário Rui in the XI. This meant we again saw Fabián Ruiz in a more attacking role with Piotr Zieliński and Allan acting as the double pivot.
Tactical analysis: Juventus’s use of midfield runs
Juventus produced a very dominant performance for the first hour of the game and looked to be on a different level to Napoli. They pressed well, passed quickly and kept their team compact defensively. They were also very clever tactically with one of their attacking methods. Usually, Napoli’s defending is man-orientated and Juve had a clear idea of how to exploit this. That involved the two advanced central midfielders, Khedira and Matuidi, making runs in behind Napoli’s full-backs.
It made sense for Juve to use this approach. As Napoli defended in a 4-4-2, Juve had a numerical advantage in midfield. When Juve were building from the back, a lot of Napoli’s focus was on how to stop Pjanić. With Matuidi and Khedira positioned in either half-space, they were often left alone without marking. Juve then looked to attract the two Napoli full-backs, Ghoulam and Giovanni Di Lorenzo, to man-mark Juve’s wide players. This action would inevitably open up a large space between Napoli’s full-backs and centre-backs, who were occupied by Gonzalo Higuaín and/or Cristiano Ronaldo. Those were the spaces Matuidi and Khedira looked to exploit, as explained below.
As you see below, the same thing happened on the opposite side. On this occasion, Ghoulam moves out to press Douglas Costa. Initially, Allan is following Khedira’s run but as Costa moves inside, Allan gets attracted to his compatriot. Costa then simply releases the ball into the path of Khedira in this inside channel.
Juventus could have been 3-0 up at the break had Khedira converted this chance that came after Juve exploited this weakness in Napoli’s game yet again. As you see in the image below, Alex Sandro finds Matuidi down the flank. On this occasion, Kostas Manolas is covering for his full-back but Koulibaly is again culpable for poor positioning. Also note the left-back Ghoulam at the bottom of the image. Matuidi furthers the ball onto Higuaín, which attracts Koulibaly, and the Argentine striker plays it into the path of Khedira who has made a run behind Allan into the space vacated by Koulibaly and not covered by Ghoulam. Luckily for Napoli, Alex Meret made a great save.
Eventually, Napoli conceded from this defensive weakness of theirs. Douglas Costa exploited the space on that occasion, as highlighted below. Again, look at the space between full-back and centre-back, and that is almost within their own penalty area.
Last week, I wrote about Napoli’s defensive weaknesses in midfield and now they were punished for their back-four deficiencies. They are scoring goals for fun but a title candidate cannot concede seven goals in two matches. Ancelotti needs to fix this immediately for Napoli to keep up with Juve.
Napoli’s pressing was quite interesting and yielded different results at various parts of the game. From their 4-4-2 defensive shape, Zieliński would step up to mark Pjanić which created a quite wide midfield diamond when pressing, as you see in the image below. On occasions, this worked really well and they managed to win the ball high up the pitch, but on others, Juve took advantage of Napoli’s midfield being quite open and found space for Matuidi and Khedira in particular.
The image below highlights a situation when Napoli forced Wojciech Szczęsny into a long ball after cutting off the goalkeeper’s passing options.
Juventus are starting to show signs of Sarri’s passing preferences though and would find ways through Napoli’s press. The most effective is one of Sarri’s most trusted methods: the up-back-through. With Khedira and Matuidi often positioned quite high, either side of Allan when Napoli pressed, or between the lines when Napoli defended deeper, Juventus could use them as targets with passes through Napoli’s lines. They would then lay the ball off to Pjanić who, facing forward, could progress the ball. The image below highlights this approach.
Napoli also had some issues with their press. They were often too eager to chase the ball that they lost back-up to the press. Thus, the likes of Bonucci and Pjanić could easily break the press and leave plenty of Napoli players on the wrong side of the ball. As you see below, six Napoli players fail to mark or foul Pjanić as well as stop his pass which finds Khedira running forward in a huge space behind Napoli’s midfield. These issues were clear last week and remained, suggesting Napoli either have players that fail to grasp this or a coaching staff that has either failed or neglected to improve upon their issue with defending in midfield.
The success of Napoli’s pressing was mixed. On the one hand, they did manage to win the ball high, but on the other, they allowed Juve to break their press with ease plenty of times in the first half. Luckily, they would improve in the second half.
Juve’s positional defence
There have been a number of changes to Juventus’s style of play under Maurizio Sarri. Without a doubt, the biggest defensive change has been his deployment of a positional defensive system. This means Juventus prioritise the defending of space rather than opponents and that they defend as a true collective rather than as individuals within a collective. Against Napoli, Juve defended in a 4-4-2 as seen below. This was created by Ronaldo staying up alongside Higuaín and Matuidi moving out as the left-sided midfielder.
The aim was to keep the team compact and force Napoli wide. As we can see in the image below, Juve keep their defence and midfield compact. In the first half, Napoli struggled to find players positioned between the lines of Juve’s defence and midfield largely due to the effectiveness of Juve’s defending.
It was clear to see that Juve have worked hard on their defensive movements as they pressed and covered for each other very well in the first half. The image below explains how this happened in the midfield line in particular.
Juventus were also very effective and aggressive in their counter-pressing. As soon as the ball was lost, especially in the middle third, Juventus quickly swarmed the ball-carrier and looked to provide pressure as well as cut off passing lanes. The image below highlights how seven players participate in a counter-pressing action against Lorenzo Insigne.
Ancelotti makes changes
After a poor first half, where Napoli had barely created anything of note and had looked like conceding more than the two they had, Ancelotti made some decisive changes. In the first half, Napoli rarely got Ruiz into the game while Zieliński and Allan struggled in midfield. The first half attacking shape is highlighted below.
Ancelotti made two substitutions at half time with Mário Rui replacing Ghoulam at left-back and new signing Hirving Lozano replacing Insigne. Lozano made a stellar cameo, provided a threat in behind and deservedly scored Napoli’s second goal. The most telling change, however, was moving Ruiz into central midfield with Zieliński positioned as the inside left forward. With Ruiz in midfield, the Spaniard started to run the game and provided the progressive passing that was lacking in the first half. Lozano’s running and Ruiz’s passing eventually led to Juventus becoming more and more stretched, Napoli controlling possession and creating chances. The shape was the same, as seen below, but the game had changed.
As mentioned, Juventus lost their compactness and became more stretched, which led to Napoli finding space between the lines. One such example was the below situation when Koulibaly threaded a pass through Juve’s midfield into Zieliński (yellow). This hardly ever happened in the first half but Juve started giving up more space between the lines and Napoli took advantage of that.
Crucially, Napoli also improved their pressing and managed to limit the occasions Juve overcame their press. Instead, Szczęsny increasingly went long and Napoli could regain the ball and continue to probe. The key reason behind the improved pressing was that they managed to provide better cover for the presser, such as in the image below when Callejón’s pressing is aided by the covering positions behind and around him.
While Napoli improved a lot in the second half, Juventus also took their foot off the gas and invited the visitors into the game. Juve’s passing became slower and less inventive, their defending less compact and the centre-back pairing of Bonucci and De Ligt started to drop deeper when Lozano threated with his pace. Still, Ancelotti’s changes were very effective to eradicate an initial plan that had failed.
As this analysis has shown, Juventus and Napoli delivered an entertaining game and an intriguing tactical battle. Over the course of 90 minutes, Juventus were clearly the better side but Napoli’s impressive comeback and the nature of the decisive goal will make them feel hard done by. What’s worse is that they are already three points behind the champions, which will probably only grow when Sarri returns to the bench.
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