Juventus maintained their 10-point advantage over Napoli with a hard-fought draw in Naples. The hosts were hoping to keep their slim title chances alive with a victory over the champions, but struggled to break down a typical resolute Juventus defence.
Maurizio Sarri sent his team out in his usual 4-3-3 formation, although there were a couple changes to the personnel within the system. With Pepe Reina failing to recover from a calf injury, understudy Rafael took his place between the sticks. Ivan Strinic was chosen ahead of Faouzi Ghoulam at left back, with regulars Kalidou Koulibaly, Raul Albiol and Elseid Hysaj making up the rest of the back four. Allan, Jorginho and Marek Hamsik were selected to start in midfield, whilst the usual front three of Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne lead the line.
Juventus’ line up consisted of the ever-present Gigi Buffon in goal, with Stephan Lichtsteiner, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Kwadwo Asamoah in front of him. Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira formed a double pivot in midfield, with Miralem Pjanic in front of them, and Mario Lemina and Mario Mandzukic on the wings. Gonzalo Higuain started against his old club up front.
Juve’s defensive discipline
As you might expect from a Juventus side visiting the most potent attack in Italy, defensive discipline was at the forefront of their game plan. Massimiliano Allegri set his team out to defend in an ultra-compact 4-4-2 block (which adjusted to a 4-4-1-1 when the ball went wide) with the intention of denying Napoli the space they needed to play their fluid passing game. Below is an example of Juventus’ shape, taken in the first minute of the match, illustrating clearly Juventus’ intentions of stifling Napoli’s attacking play with a very narrow and vertically compact block.
This defence-comes-first strategy was made easier by Sami Khedira’s early goal in the 7th minute, when he collected a loose ball in midfield before bursting past several Napoli players to create a shooting opportunity which he duly took. With a 1-0 lead, as well as a 10-point lead in the league table, Juventus had the perfect environment to execute a defensive masterclass.
Allegri’s men would let Napoli have comfortable possession around the halfway line, but their defensive organisation meant that it was very difficult for the hosts to safely advance the ball as there was simply no space to go through centrally. Despite this, Napoli tried to maintain a strong presence inside Juventus’ defensive block, positioning their front three between the midfield and defensive lines, as you can see from the picture below (and also the previous picture). This was done in the hope that their presence in a dangerous central area would disorganise Juventus’ defenders and attract them out of position, but for the large part Napoli struggled to execute this very well.
This was partly because of how well-drilled Juventus’ defensive block was, whereby the small distances between the lines meant that it was easy for multiple players to collapse towards the ball whenever it was played into the #10 space. This enabled them to suffocate the space around the ball receiver and force a turnover before the player could find a pass to one of his team mates.
However, Napoli will also have to look at themselves when assessing why they struggled to break through Juventus in this way. The three players were often positioned too close together, meaning Juventus players could easily mark two or three of them out of the game in one go by covering space efficiently, and on the same horizontal line, which makes it difficult for them to play combination passes forward. There were promising moments in which Napoli broke through, such as the one shown below, but these were too few and far between.
For most of the game, however, Napoli could not penetrate through Juventus centrally in this way and had to go around Juventus’ block. This was not necessarily a bad thing – many of Napoli’s best attacks come through wide combinations – but Juventus adjusted the position of their block excellently throughout the match and managed to negate Napoli’s wide threats.
The Juventus block slid across to the side smoothly, maintaining horizontal and spacial compactness in the process, whilst denying space around the ball in wide areas. This prevented Napoli from playing quick passes to break through the defensive line, and any late third man runs through the channel – a common feature of Napoli’s attacks – were duly tracked or covered. Pjanic, along with the ball-near central midfielder, would shuffle over and prevent any passes back inside, forcing Napoli to either try a hopeful cross from deep or play backwards to recycle possession.
Napoli subsequently attempted a large amount of crosses in the game, but due to the lack of a ‘true’ centre forward or anyone with noticeable height, along with the poor position from which the crosses were coming in from, Juventus’ defenders and keeper found them more than comfortable to deal with.
Although Juventus’ defensive display was undoubtedly outstanding in the way they adjusted to the ball position to constantly maintain pressure and deny space around the ball regardless of where it went, Napoli’s own defensive game was equally impressive in their pressing from the front. Despite Juventus’ main intentions clearly being on the defensive side of the game, Napoli must get credit for completely negating Juventus’ build up for the duration of the match and limiting them to just four shots and one shot on target, which unfortunately for them turned out to be a goal.
Their high press was designed to force Juventus to play the ball out wide by pressurising the centre backs on the ball whilst the midfielders behind suffocated space centrally. The centre back would subsequently be forced to play out wide to the full back, which acted as a pressing trigger for the hosts. The near-winger would immediately move to pressurise the receiver, whilst the near-full back marked the winger down the line. In midfield, the central midfielders would step up to neutralise any passing options back inside.
Napoli repeatedly won possession in this way, either by winning it off the full back, intercepting the next pass from the full back or forcing Juventus to clear their lines. As a result, Juventus struggled to build any attacks and Napoli would have the ball back to start attacks of their own.
Deep central midfielders
One structural issue that prevented Napoli from attacking effectively was that all three of their central midfielders were often goal-side of Juventus’ midfield line. Whilst this did mean that they could horizontally circulate the ball better, having five players (three central midfielders and two centre backs) outside the Juventus block was a bit excessive and reduced their attacking options further up the field.
If one of the three central midfielders had positioned themselves between the lines inside the Juventus block, this would have freed up one of their attackers to move elsewhere and potentially stretch Juventus’ defensive line, which in turn could have created more openings. In fact, their only goal came about when Hamsik snuck in behind the midfield on the blind side, enabling him to play a one-two with Mertens to get behind the defence and score.
Possibly due to the early goal for the visitors, the game followed what was essentially an attack vs defence pattern for the majority of the 90 minutes in which the defence ultimately won, despite letting Napoli score an equaliser. Despite vast amounts of possession – in part due to some excellent pressing – Napoli struggled to use the ball effectively to create as many goalscoring opportunities as they would’ve liked. Even after getting their equaliser, they failed to find the next gear and launch an all-out offensive to try and win the game. The visitors will undoubtedly be the happier of the two teams, with a well-earned point in Naples effectively ruling their opponents out of the title race.