Serie A 2021/22: How Spalletti’s formation change saw Napoli comeback and keep Juventus winless- tactical analysis
The 3rd game week of the 2021-22 Serie A saw long-standing rivals Napoli host Juventus at the Diego Maradonna stadium. Both the teams have started a new era with Napoli moving on from Gattuso to hire ex-Inter Milan coach Luciano Spalletti and Juventus sacking club legend Pirlo to bring back ex-manager Massimiliano Allegri while also selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United just before the deadline day.
While Napoli have started in a decent fashion notching up two wins in two games, Juventus have struggled to get going as they remain winless and also suffering a shock defeat to Empoli last time around.
Napoli made three changes to the lineup that beat Genoa as Spalletti gave a debut to his latest signing A. Zambo Anguissa while also bringing in Osimhen and Ospina in place of Hirving Lozano and Alex Meret.
Juventus, on the other hand, made seven changes to the lineup got defeated against Empoli with only Szczesny, Bonucci, McKennie and Rabiot retaining their places as the likes of Danilo, Dybala was absent due to a late finish to the international break for South-American players.
Juventus expose Napoli’s disorganised press in the first half
Napoli’s formation in the first half was an outright 4-1-4-1 with Ruiz playing the lone pivot while Anguissa and Elmas went forward to put pressure on the Juventus midfielders. The forwards would cover the half-spaces while looking to pressure the full-backs if the ball went out to them. This was majorly a pressing trap designed to win the ball in the flanks as Napoli looked to use the presence of the touchline to a good effect. But there were some cracks or flaws in their pressing that resulted in some issues and Juventus were quite decent enough to pounce on it in the first half.
The main flaw was the manipulation of the positioning of Napoli CMs by their Juventus counterparts. We can see both Elmas and Anguissa pressing McKennie and Rabiot and both the Juventus players have used an open body angle that forces both the Napoli players to press even higher resulting in a passing lane being opened for Locatelli to play a ball forward to Kulusevski. The Swedish midfielder can now receive the ball in half-turn and has acres of space to run into in between the lines as Morata has pinned the entire defence back by providing the depth.
The presence of Kulusevski in between the lines gave a lot of issues for Napoli to deal with as he constantly kept dropping into the space and Ruiz wasn’t able to effectively cover him due to the constant lateral shifting by the Old Lady. We can see another example below of him receiving the ball in between the lines. We can see that Ruiz had to shift across the pitch to cover for him now as McKennie on the other side’s half-space had caught his attention. This 2v1 overload of a DM can be a major concern for any side and Juventus looked to capitalise on that.
This was even more impactful for Juventus when Morata decided to drop deep and drag defenders with him. This allowed Kulusevski to make runs into space and attack the final line. We can see an example of that in the image below, where Morata has dropped deep and he has attracted Koulibalu to follow him thus opening a space in behind for the likes of Kulusevski to run into.
The trade-off had to be made as sometimes Napoli midfielders would prefer to sit deep and cover the spaces behind and not to give any of them to the Juventus forwards in between the lines. This meant that effectively the likes of Locatelli and Rabiot could drop deep without any pressure on them. Also, sometimes the pressing angles by the Napoli players weren’t up to the mark that saw the Old Lady CBs easily access the CM by a straight pass which is probably the most important thing that teams in the defensive phase try to avoid these days. We can see an example of that in the image below as Napoli press up the pitch and the body positioning of the Napoli RWF is prioritized to cover the full-back that leads to a simple passing lane being opened to Locatelli for Bonucci. These situations can cause serious issues for any team as a progressive pass into the central regions to a technically superior player is highly valuable for the possession team.
When Napoli decided to cover the central areas, Juventus were flexible to immediately switch the ball to the flanks and utilize their width to create danger. We can see an example of Napoli in a low-block looking to cover the central areas while Juventus have decided to shift the ball wide to use the flanks as a means of progression.
Juventus would often look to overload one of the flanks and underload the other before looking to switch the ball to the opposite flank. This is primarily used by the majority of the teams today to open gaps in defences.
Napoli’s struggles with their positional play
Apart from struggling defensively, Napoli were also unable to sustain a lot of possession and convert them into quality chances in the final third. There seemed to be a major sense of disconnect among the players playing with a lack of proper communication in the positional play.
Juventus defended in a 4-4-2 against the Napoli 2-3-5 formation where the RB would invert inside while Rui would look to provide the width higher up the pitch. We can see Juventus midfielder lining in four at the centre which leads to the ball being played out wide to the Napoli LB.
The Juventus players did well to deflect the ball to the flank where they would look to regain it back by pressing intensely. We can see that in the image below as Napoli are being forced wide by Juventus. Although a player makes good movement to attack the half-space, he is being tracked effectively by the Juventus player.
The major thing that Napoli lacked would be runners into the half-spaces or attacking the spaces consistently behind the Juventus’ defence. They had a couple of moments like this in the image below where Elmas made a very good run into the space as Insigne dropping deep caused the dragging of defenders from their position. But even in this situation, Elmas wasn’t played the ball he needed as Juventus players pressed well to cover the spaces around.
Often there would be a disconnect between the full-back and wingers of Napoli as either of them would drop way off from one another that would mean there would be less possibility of interchanges among them. This would eventually result in their possession being stale and a back pass being played. In this example, we can see the distance between Insigne and Rui and when Rui receives the ball, Insigne is very far to make a run and distract the defenders from Rui. This means that Rui is caught in an overloaded situation soon and has to be passive to retain possession.
Spalletti’s changes ensure second-half comeback
Spalletti had to make some minor adjustments and he did exactly that by changing Napoli’s system from a 4-1-4-1 into a 4-2-3-1 as Ounas came onto the pitch to replace Elmas and Anguissa moved deeper into the double pivot. This gave Napoli extra solidarity while defending against the likes of Kulusevski and Morata dropping, while Ounas’ presence and constant movement on the right side gave Juventus a lot of issues.
We can see in the image below where Anguissa is now deeper and can now dictate the play from the deep which is where his strength lies while Ounas has now dropped deep to show himself for a pass in the half-space.
We can see Ounas making a run into the space left by the LB as he follows Politano deep. Ounas’ intelligence, mobility and awareness were on full display in the second half as Napoli used his presence to good effect to unlock passing lanes and the Juventus defence.
We can see the double pivot now staying central and this means that they have covered the space behind (Zone-14) and Juventus now have to move towards the wide areas to unlock the Napoli defence. Hence, the likes of Kulusevski was no longer as influential as he would be and this led to Napoli being in control without possession.
Another advantage for Napoli came in the form of Juventus shifting to a 3-5-2 structure. This was particularly done to improve their structure in the build-up but it compromised their defensive stability as the likes of Insigne were able to drop deep in the half-space and collect the ball without a player pressing him. In a 4-4-2, one of the wide midfielders would press him or even the CM would keep tabs on him. Here in a 3-5-2 when the onus was on the CB to follow him, he couldn’t as that would leave spaces behind lead to this imbalance in favour of Napoli later.
The win takes Napoli to the top of the table as they extend their winning start to the season under Spalletti. Juventus, on the other hand, seem to be in huge concern after remaining winless either of their three games and haven’t started their post-Ronaldo era very well. Allegri would like his team to bounce back immediately against Malmo with games against AC Milan and Chelsea coming in the next two weeks.