Clash of contrasting strategies in Napoli’s draw with Juventus
Two of Italy’s best teams clashed in a game of contrasting playing styles.
Napoli played the same football that they always have under Maurizio Sarri, while Juventus preferred a deep defensive block with more of a direct, counter-attacking focus. Despite conceding early, Napoli were the superior team for the majority of the game, due to their strong left-side dynamics and pressing which constricted Juventus’ attack.
Juventus’ Deep Defensive Approach
Allegri aimed to blunt Napoli’s attack with a deep midfield press in a shape which resembled a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2. Rarely did they look to apply direct pressure within Napoli’s own half and if they did, they would quickly retreat if the first line was broken. On a similar note, they rarely pressed outside of their defensive block, preferring to focus on greater pressure inside. There was a big emphasis on compactness, both in the vertical and horizontal plane with an especially narrow midfield four. From this tight block, the midfielders would make man-oriented movements to maintain access by blocking the immediate passing options.
Such an approach was fairly effective in blocking any vertical progressions from Napoli. The compact nature of the defensive block, which was at times a 4-4-2-0, had a strong occupation of the central areas of the pitch. This presence was important in blocking Napoli’s access into spaces in front of the penalty area, and if Insigne or Mertens received the ball between lines, then they could quickly be swarmed from many angles.
When the attack inevitably moved to a wider position, the midfield line would be very ball-oriented with a focus on short distances between players, with Marchisio sometimes stepping higher to increase their shadow coverage of space and passing lanes into spaces inside. Doing so would provide a fairly strong coverage of any means of diagonal progression – something important against one of the best flanks in football. Although it didn’t completely shut-down Napoli’s left-sided attack, Juventus provided good resistance to their opponents’ game and reduced the amount they were able to play the ball inside the block.
One interesting element was the common asymmetry within the defensive block. Mandzukic, the left winger would often stay very deep and close to his full-back while Lemina very much played within the midfield line and rarely dropped back. This is likely to be in reaction to the asymmetry of Napoli’s wing dynamics. On the left, the ball enters at a slower pace, often coming from Koulibaly, the left centre-back to Strinic, the left back. This link and the resulting combinations means that maintaining a balanced and compact spatial coverage around this space is important to block the circulation, which is typically dynamic and complex. On the other hand, their right-side is more linear and direct, with the ball entering the zone through fast, longer passes either diagonally or vertically. To defend this, there is a lesser demand on a balanced spatial coverage by the sub-structure, and instead there is a greater focus on blocking the direct attacking routes, which Mandzukic helps to do with his deeper positioning.
Napoli Gradually Improve with the Ball
As a result of Juventus’ tight defence, Napoli’s approach to the penalty area became slightly more direct than usual. Sarri’s team were able to maintain possession well around Juventus’ block, but struggled to create gaps through their passing or sustain possession within the block. They attempted fewer combinations and instead played more balls in the air – either diagonally to Callejon or over the top to Insigne/Mertens, alongside quite a large number of crosses. If they looked to attack on the ground, it was more individualistic – through direct, vertical dribbles from Insigne.
Still, they dominated the game through their control of the ball and use of pressing to restrict the development of many Juventus attacks. Then, after the first thirty minutes, they began to improve with the ball and made quicker circulation to challenge the organisation of Juventus’ block. They remained heavily focused on breaking through the left half-space, and were able to find Insigne and Mertens in small gaps with short penetrative passes. One way in which they broke the midfield line was by passing the ball horizontally before quickly playing it vertically forwards. In reaction to the initial horizontal pass, the Juve midfield would adjust by shifting sideways in the direction which the ball was played. Then, while the midfielders were still shifting, the ball would be played between a lane which had opened as a result of their movements. This tactic was used successfully three or four times to enable Napoli to find Insigne and Mertens between the lines.
Another area in which Napoli improved was their ability to provoke the press through the ball circulation. They frequently moved the ball on the outside of Juventus’ block, in the blue areas highlighted below, with the intention of drawing out Lemina or Marchisio to increase the space for Insigne or Mertens to receive passes. This was done while Callejon and Mertens threatened with movements into depth, ensuring that the opposition centre-backs couldn’t safely move up and increase compactness. In this left-sided structure, Insigne and Hamsik (highlighted) were dynamic as ever, often alternating between playing in front of the defence or within it. With Strinic being the third point, this created a dynamic and variable triangle through which to combine.
Their improvement peaked with their outstanding equaliser in the 60th minute. Initially, they were able to create space through their ball circulation on the outside of Juve’s defence, primarily through Insigne retreating which drew Lemina and Marchisio further away from their defensive line. This gave enough room for Hamsik to drift inside and receive a pass from Jorginho. The Slovakian quickly let go of the ball to ensure he wasn’t caught by Bonucci, combining with Mertens to explode into the gap that the centre-back left before receiving and finishing.
Napoli’s Press Blunts Juventus’ Attack
In stark contrast to their opponents’ more reserved approach, Napoli resumed their typical high press. The strategy was effective in reducing the threat that their visitors carried, as Juventus created just four shots – which was partially a result of many of their possessions not crossing the halfway line. Napoli’s forwards would continue to close down Juventus’ build-up all the way back to Buffon, and ensured that the visitors’ possession would begin as far away as possible from Raffael’s goal. Such a point was important to reduce the impact of Bonucci’s excellent direct distribution.
This was reflected in Mertens’ activity, who pressed much more aggressively when the right centre-back was on the ball in comparison to when Chiellini was in possession. This slight nuance was important in restricting Bonucci’s influence by directing Juventus’ build-up away from him. The Belgian forward was often joined by a midfielder so that Napoli had access to both Juventus’ centerbacks, while the remaining four midfielders occupied deeper areas and the respective Juve midfielders.
Juventus inevitably became more direct with Mandzukic and Higuain offering good targets in addition to Pjanic making runs into depth ahead of them. But Napoli were strong in intercepting these attempts to start a more direct attack (excluding the goal, which was as much about Khedira turning into Mkhi than it was Juve’s direct play). When Juve did build-up with short passes, they were far more successful when Pjanic dropped into deeper positions. The Bosnian could act as a free-man if Napoli’s midfield failed to adjust to his presence, while his personal pressing-resistant qualities were important and somewhat lacking with Marchisio and Khedira. In this respect, I feel that Juventus could’ve integrated Pjanic more into the build-up to enable them to progress better.
Napoli could be considered quite unlucky despite being behind for most of the game. They out-shot Allegri’s team 17 to four, while stopping them from creating any high-quality shots after Khedira’s early goal. Their gradual improvement with the ball alongside the suffocating pressure allowed them to control the game. Still, Juventus’ compact defence meant that while Sarri’s team were able to generate shots, creating high-quality ones was much more difficult.