Juventus hosted Napoli in a top of the table clash in Serie A on Saturday night, trailing the Partenopei by two points. The champions, however, had gone on a club-record 15-game winning streak since their poor start to the domestic season. Napoli meanwhile were defying the odds and built on their early season promise to stay as the main rivals to four-times champions Juventus whilst others have faded.
Juventus had to make do with the absence of Giorgio Chiellini, and Max Allegri opted to change to a 4-4-2 instead of replacing Chiellini with Daniele Rugani and stick with the three-man defence that we have come to expect from Juventus. It would have been interesting to see what Allegri would have done if Martin Caceres was not injured as well. Whether or not this fact betrays Allegri’s lack of confidence in Rugani is not something to get into here, and in any case Rugani came on for Leonardo Bonucci six minutes into the second half and looked assured for the most part.
Napoli began with their strongest line up possible with nothing close to the number of absentees that their hosts had.
Juventus change in formation and build-up
Juventus, as usual, attempted to play out from the back, though their structuring was slightly different than when they play with a three-man defence. Normally, the two outside centre backs for Juventus – commonly Barzagli and Chiellini – fan out while Bonucci occupies the space between the two of them with Marchisio just slightly ahead.
The screenshot above was taken from Juve’s match against Roma and shows their typical structure in the first phase of build up; Bonucci as the libero and Marchisio just in front of the defence.
As the play progresses we see Khedira coming to receive the ball and Lichtsteiner pushing forward to stretch the play, bringing his marker along with him.
The switch to the four-man defence and the subsequent inclusion of Juan Cuadrado changed Juve’s structuring. Against Napoli, Lichtsteiner would not start as high up the pitch and would be in the position more commonly expected of a full back.
In the image above taken from the match against Napoli, we see the differences already. Marchisio is between Barzagli and Bonucci (not in frame) and Lichtsteiner is not beyond the halfway line. It is Cuadrado who has taken up the position that the Swiss right-back normally occupies. Meanwhile, Khedira is in the half space and Pogba pulls to the left to vacate space for Dybala, who, much like his idol Lionel Messi, is very good at receiving the ball from deep and turning and running at the opposition defence.
About 20 seconds later, as the play progresses, we can see Dybala coming to receive the ball, Morata occupies the centre-backs while Pogba pushes on, but remains in the left half space, and on the opposite side Cuadrado (not in frame) is closer to the touchline than the Frenchman. In this sequence Bonucci plays one of his trademark long passes to Pogba but nothing really materialises for the home side.
This little sequence also highlights the importance of the movement towards the midfield that Dybala makes. There is always a risk that playing 4-4-2 against 4-3-3 will see you being outnumbered in midfield, but Dybala moving there denied Napoli their numerical superiority.
There is also a bit more to be said about Claudio Marchisio and his movement towards the space made by the centre backs splitting apart. As Marchisio drops deep, Higuain is now facing a 1v3 – some might say 4 including Buffon. So Allan – (although sometimes it was Insigne, Callejon or Hamsik who would do this) – pushes up to give his teammate a hand in enforcing Sarri’s typical high pressing style on the champions. However, Juve for the most part managed to play out of trouble and while this was happening Dybala would drop into midfield, as we can see from the image above; this, in fact, gave Juve the upper hand in the middle third and allowed them to completely overturn the initial superiority of Napoli there into an advantage for Juve.
Juve, in my opinion, did not make the most of these situations. In fact in the image above it could be argued that Bonucci could possibly have played a quick pass into Dybala to run at Napoli instead of going long for Pogba. Clearly there is enough space between Jorginho and Allan, who was retreating after going forward to assist Higuain in pressing Juve, which was in magnified in part because of Marchisio dropping in between the centre-backs.
Napoli remain compact but defensive solidity is at the expense of attacking impetus
Napoli defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape and remained compact throughout with good spacing, an absolute requirement when facing a team like Juventus with so many good technical players. Rarely did they ever find themselves in compromising situations and Juventus rarely troubled Pepe Reina because of their compactness both vertically and horizontally. However the increased defensive responsibility given to the wide men in Callejon and Insigne left Higuain isolated up front on his own against Bonucci (later Rugani) and Barzagli, and the Argentine rarely was able to hold up the ball and launch the counter attack.
I presume that Sarri intended to use his two 8s, particularly Allan, who is very good at carrying the ball forward, to drive up in support of Higuain, but Juventus’ positional play with the ball, a vital part to ensure a team is prepared to counter press efficiently, ensured that the Bianconeri would for the most part win the ball and quell any dangerous counter attacks Napoli could have executed.
A very tight contest, and a match of very few chances. Ultimately only Simone Zaza’s strike off a fortunate deflection was enough to see Juve collect maximum points. Napoli will be a little be aggrieved to have lost on the night, but they did manage to put in a performance that suggests they are equals to Juventus. Juve meanwhile pick up another win and their splendid run continues. Another record is looming in Inter’s record 17 match winning streak, which ironically they could achieve if they beat the Nerazzurri two rounds from now.