Napoli and Maurizio Sarri’s insurmountable task only became more difficult once their club’s most hated player, possibly ever, bagged a brace in the second of leg of their cup tie against Juventus. However, Sarri’s Napoli put up a brave and impressive fight against what is probably the most dominant Juventus team in recent history with the story of the game ultimately representative of the larger narrative. Napoli, though brilliant in their ability provide some of the best attacking football in all of Europe eventually succumbing to what seems to be a foregone conclusion in Italy. Death, taxes and Juve’s dominance seem almost guaranteed to anyone in or around Italian football. It’s as black and white as that. (Not really but look at their kits)
Despite the plaudits received by Sarri for his accomplishments with this incredibly talented Napoli team, their lack of duality has seemingly proven to be a key factor in their demise. Though trophies certainly don’t mean everything and often misrepresent who or what the “best” team is, Sarri’s inability to find better use in his right sided players may have ultimately shut off the best chance for his Napoli team to capture any silverware this season.
Napoli’s lack of dynamism proved costly
Napoli often overload the left the side of their 4-3-3 to create chances through passing triangles and off ball movement. By engaging defenders in the back line through positioning in half spaces through Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, Sarri’s compact formation is often able to pull out and unsettle even the most Italian of defensive structures.
Sarri typically utilizes the right side of his attack as a holder of position that can take advantage once the defensive block has been shifted. Jose Callejon stays wide, even when possession is overloaded on the left, allowing Napoli to take full advantage of the space left over once the ball is switched. They also often use deep, diagonal crosses as opposed to direct horizontal crosses to increase the difficulty of dealing with their service as well as a way of pandering towards their less physically dominant forward players.
The turning point of the match came in the 76th minute when Barzagli was substituted on for Dybala and placed as an extra right sided central defender. Allegri did this to combat the potent left sided attack that had consistently created chances despite a concentrated effort from Dani Alves and Juan Cuadrado to avoid getting tossed around by Napoli’s lightning quick passing. Barzagli overloaded their right flank, nullifying any space created by the opposition’s passing.
Though a shifting Hamsik and the eventual substitution of Mertens did see Napoli try and create down their less frequented right flank, the efforts applied seemed to be too little too late. Two fantastic strikes from the former Napoli number nine put Juventus far in front, and although some claim Pepe Reina could’ve done better with the first goal, playing the Spaniard was a risk Sarri was willing to take. Since much of Napoli’s game incorporates possession-oriented tactics, playing out of the back and drawing out Juventus’ low block was always going to be a consideration. While Rafael’s performance between the sticks at the weekend was by no means sub-par, it still left something to be desired when it came to his passing game; hence the considered risk for the cup tie.
Juve’s concentrated approach
Massimiliano Allegri’s approach to the game was generally the same as it was in the league tie, but the change in the Old Lady’s personnel allowed the side to be a bit more dominant. Though Allegri was okay with pure catenaccio in the league clash, Juve’s gap atop the table afforded them some comfort in that situation; Allegri took no chances in the cup.
While the 4-2-3-1 employed in the league match featured the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Claudio Marchisio, and Mario Lemina, their cup side saw Juventus upgrade in defensive quality to try and stifle the quick pass and move plays that Napoli have become synonymous with this season. Sturaro was a better and more natural fit on the left wing to try and combat the pace of Callejon and the physicality of Hysaj, Rincon was more disruptive in central midfield than Marchisio, and Dybala made a better partner for a relatively isolated Higuain.
Despite the stature of a team like Juventus, Allegri’s ability to recognize that an attempt to control the game as they might against the majority of their opponents in Italy would prove to be a risk in the knockout stages of a cup competition shows his maturity and understanding as manager. Though he may have received criticism for his team’s more defensive nature in the league tie, exercising the degree of pragmatism that many modern managers fail to display by making their dominant teams as flexible as possible is what seems to separate Allegri from the pack. The cup performance, starting with the selection of the personnel, appeared calculated and understood with it’s intended pace and phasing. Allegri knew that if he tried to sit back and absorb the scathing blue attacks for ninety minutes it would likely result in Juventus getting knocked out. Phasing the game from intense pressure that scaled back and became concentrated in problem areas are what ultimately got the black and white jerseys through and on course for a domestic double, and perhaps even European greatness.