Juventus hosted Napoli last Saturday night in what amounted to a crucial clash of Scudetto contenders. Going into the match, Napoli topped Serie A on 56 points, while Juventus sat just below them on 54. The most important news in the lead-up to this game was that Giorgio Chiellini would be out through injury. The left-sided centre-back is not only vital to Juventus’ defensive line but also to their possession game. Hence, his absence was agonised over.
After much speculation that Massimiliano Allegri would bring in 21-year-old Daniele Rugani to replace Chiellini directly, the Bianconeri coach dealt with the issue by eschewing using the three-man backline altogether. Instead he went for a four-man defensive line, something he has not used in months, as part of a 4-4-2 system, breaking with the more commonly used 3-5-2.
Maurizio Sarri was adamant before the fixture that his Napoli side would play their normal game. As such he made no changes and, with the luxury of having no major injury concerns, went with his favoured 4-3-3 setup.
Juventus congest space between the lines and disjoint Napoli’s possession game
In the defensive phase, Juventus settled into a fairly deep 4-4-2-0 shape in order to counteract Napoli’s possession game, which is seen as arguably the best in Italy. Allegri’s side married this shape with a marking style that, like the choice of formation, was unorthodox for them.
Usually Juventus opt for an aggressive man-oriented style of marking though, conscious of Napoli’s fluid movement and ability to manoeuvre the ball, they used a more passive, less confrontational style here. This style incorporated elements of both position and man-oriented marking.
A roughly position-oriented approach was evident in Juventus’ midfield forming a screen in front of their defensive line. The four-man midfield remained horizontally compact, shifting from side to side without engaging the Napoli ball-players directly in the centre. The reason for this approach had a lot to do with the type of possession Napoli prefer to have. Sarri has placed a great deal of emphasis on verticality with the ball since arriving at San Paolo. It is a theme he utilised well with Empoli and has produced some beautiful results.
The aim of this is for the Napoli ball-player to look to break the opposition’s lines of pressure as quickly as possible via vertical forward passes. This form of possession is ideal when up against teams that exert man-oriented pressure high up the pitch as, with the opponent constantly looking to engage the ball-player, more space is open behind them for Napoli to play the ball into.
By choosing a position-oriented rather than a man-oriented approach, Juventus focused more on retaining their defensive shape as opposed to pressuring Napoli’s ball-player directly. As such, Napoli had less opportunities to break Juventus’ lines with vertical forward passes and were forced into passing wider into less dangerous areas.
Once the ball was played wide, the ball-near Juventus player would apply light pressure to the receiver. This was one aspect of the ‘element’ of man-orientation in the Bianconeri’s defensive play. This was more prevalent in their defensive line, particularly in Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli’s coverage of Napoli’s leading goalscorer, Gonzalo Higuain. Juventus’ central defensive pairing took it in turns to remain close to the Napoli centre-forward; if the Argentine received the ball, one of them was right behind him, trying to tackle or harry him into giving up possession.
Higuain was isolated for much of the game, though this was not just due to the rigorous man marking Bonucci and Barzagli adopted with him. His isolation was also the result of the congestion of space between Juventus’ defensive and midfield lines. The home side’s four-man midfield, as well as forming a horizontally compact screen, dropped deep in the defensive phase to achieve vertical compactness. As such there was less space for Napoli’s wide men, Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne, to drift infield into and, as a consequence, when Higuain received the ball to feet, connections with Callejon and Insigne were less viable.
Another important aspect of Juventus’ defensive play was in their stifling of Jorginho, who is integral to Napoli’s build-up play. Generally, he forms a triangle with centre-backs Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol and circulates the ball with them in the early stages of Napoli’s possession. This is done to draw the opponent out of their defensive shape and create space behind for vertical passes to the false wingers drifting in, or the outside central midfielders.
However, Juventus’ strike duet of Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata assumed a deep, narrow positioning in the defensive phase, cover shadowing Jorginho. As a result of this Koulibaly and Albiol were less able to find their defensive midfield pivot and Napoli’s build-up play was more rushed and disjointed, and forced wider than usual, at a very early stage. The statistical effects of this were seen as Jorginho made just 83 passes, 15.4 less than his average. He also made no key passes, of which he usually makes 1.8 per game.
Napoli pressure ball-oriented with a high defensive line
In contrast to their illustrious hosts, Napoli were more active in the defensive phase, opting for a ball-oriented approach in their marking and pressing. They also pressed much higher up the pitch than Juventus.
In the defensive phase, Napoli’s 4-3-3 became a 4-5-1 with Insigne and Callejon fanning wide. When Juve were building possession from the back, Napoli’s midfield five took it in turns to pressure the ball-player while the others formed a line of cover behind. Higuain would position himself between the Juventus centre-backs as a way of reducing their passing options between one another. This forced them either to pass forward, where Napoli were numerically stronger, or to the side.
Napoli moved in accordance with the ball in an attempt to squeeze the options available to the ball-player at all times. Then, when Juventus were forced wide, Napoli would apply pressure to the full-back. As the central fulcrum of the midfield three, Jorginho was integral to this, often providing supportive coverage diagonally behind both outside midfielders – Allan and Marek Hamsik – when the ball was on their side.
Napoli could become very compact with groups of players converging around the ball, making it difficult for Juventus to pass through. This, along with the higher press, ensured the home side had less ball possession over the course of the match. Napoli’s high press was augmented by their high defensive line, which prevented huge gaps from opening up between midfield and defence, creating good vertical compactness and more comprehensive coverage. This, along with the positional structure of Napoli’s 4-3-3, had an important effect on Juventus’ possession game.
Generally, Juve look to build attacks through the right half-space. This involves the movement of Sami Khedira beyond the opposition midfield line or to the side, freeing up space for Dybala to drop deep into. While nominally a striker, the 22-year-old’s role has been described as a ‘nine-and-a-half’ due to his taking up deeper positions from where he can knit attacks together.
However with Napoli’s well-orchestrated ball-oriented pressure combined with their outside central midfielders filling in the areas between Juventus’ wingers and central midfielders, rarely did the right half-space open up for Dybala to receive the ball. Furthermore, even when it did, Napoli’s high, compact defensive line meant he had less time and space to work in. For good measure, Koulibaly had a man-oriented role on Dybala and did a good job of tracking the Argentine, forcing him to move into deeper and wider areas where he couldn’t be quite so impactive.
Hamsik positional change fails to improve Napoli possession
In the attacking phase, the left side of Napoli’s attack is their most threatening as it presents more fluid movement and incision than the right. This is thanks in most part due to the movement of Hamsik, Insigne and left-back Faouzi Ghoulam. The latter often overlaps or provides a wide outlet near the left touchline, while the former pair drive forward and inward respectively. These movements and positions are important to Sarri’s emphasis on vertical passes, as they often provide Jorginho and Koulibaly – Napoli’s left-sided centre-back – passing lanes which they can use to break opposition lines.
However with Juventus’ defensive structure reducing the space into which Insigne and Hamsik could make penetrative runs, there was far less space for Napoli to play the ball into. With their possession stultified, Sarri decided to move Ghoulam further down the left flank in the second half, while Hamsik would often drop deep into the left half-space in the build-up stage. The idea behind this was perhaps to force Juventus either to alter their own layout to deal with the overload down the left flank or to pressure Hamsik and thus leave space behind. Unfortunately for Sarri and Napoli, the Bianconeri’s position-oriented approach – their primary focus was not on the ball-player (Hamsik) or on the movement of the opposition, but on retention of their own defensive shape – ensured that neither problem arose.
While not an exhilarating spectacle this was a highly intriguing and tactical clash defined by two teams with exceptional defensive organisation. The match was eventually won by a superb long-range strike from Juventus substitute Simone Zaza, though in truth the defeat was perhaps harsh on Napoli.