Conte’s Juventus storm back from 2-0 down to draw 3-3 at Napoli
One of the good things about a very tactical match is that the coaches are pressed for the reasons they made particular decisions at the post-match press conference.
Antonio Conte’s approach away to Napoli was very surprising. Having started the season with a 4-4-2 often called a 4-2-4 and more recently moved to a 4-1-4-1, he switched to a 3-5-2 system. Giorgio Chiellini tucked in, Marcelo Estigarribia played on the left, and Simone Pepe moved inside to the centre of midfield, with Claudio Marchisio suspended.
Walter Mazzarri, meanwhile, played his usual 3-4-3ish shape, though Juan Zuniga started rather than Andrea Dossena, and Edinson Cavani was injured so Goran Pandev played upfront. The front three switched around even more than usual, but one always made sure they dropped onto Andrea Pirlo and closed him down quickly.
With the coaches outlining very interesting reasoning for their decisions, this article will be in two parts – a larger first looking at the coaches’ explanations, then a smaller part looking at how and why Juventus managed to turn it around in the second half.
The quotes are all taken from the superb Football Italia website.
Part 1 – quotes and analyis
Conte’s starting line-up:
Conte: “We tried to mirror Napoli, as Christian Maggio makes the difference for them and I wanted him to go head-to-head with Estigarribia, who had an extraordinary game.
Conte’s openness about wanting to mirror Napoli is interesting. Presumably, since Juventus were 3-5-2ish and Napoli were 3-4-3, he means mirroring them with a back three and wing-backs, rather than in midfield. In basic terms, it’s quite unwise to try to beat an opponent at a particular style of football they excel at, and in the first half Napoli’s wing-backs were much more effective than Juventus’.
Estigarribia has seen little Serie A football, and when he has he hasn’t looked completely convincing, so it’s surprising Conte wanted to put him up against the man who he considered Juventus’ biggest threat. He doesn’t have many alternatives for that role, but perhaps Pepe could have played on the left and ex-Napoli star Michele Pazienza could have done a job in the centre.
Did the approach to stop Maggio work? Not really – Maggio set up the first from a set-piece with a header across the six-yard box for Marek Hamsik, contributed the second by closing down Andrea Pirlo with the ball falling to Pandev, and crossed for the the third, Pandev’s cool finish. Granted, the first goal was from a free-kick and therefore not about formations and positioning in open play, and the second was an accidental assist that came from pressing, but you can’t say that Juve successfully nullified Maggio – although later they attacked him brilliantly.
Napoli defence v Juventus attack:
Conte: “We had prepared a match with Mirko Vucinic against Salvatore Aronica and Alessandro Matri on Paolo Cannavaro. We didn’t do well in the first half, as we often hesitated in giving them service. After the break the two strikers had much more of an impact.”
The positioning here caused Napoli problems at the back. Ordinarily in 3 v 2 you’d want the central player, Cannavaro, sweeping up behind two others, Aronica and Hugo Campagnaro. But it meant that Campagnaro was the free man and spent the game leaving his zone and moving to the left of the pitch. Watch Juve’s first goal and you’ll find Campagnaro towards the left, leaving a huge amount of space for Matri. The second is almost identical, but more exaggerated and with Estigarribia free. It’s ironic that the one Napoli centre-back not mentioned by Conte was the only one mentioned by Mazzarri…
Mazzarri: “When Hugo Campagnaro is sharp, he won’t let anything past, but when tired you can make silly mistakes.”
Conte: “Pepe is a very intelligent player tactically and had a little trouble finding his position in the middle, but then became devastating.”
Pepe: “I’m not a narrow midfielder, but I was able to go about my duties thanks to my teammates. I felt at ease and enjoyed myself when I found space, also because Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo protected me and granted me the freedom to go forward.”
Pepe, who grabbed the equaliser, has become the versatile workman that Juventus have always been great at creating. In the mould of Moreno Torricelli, Angelo Di Livio, Alessandro Birindelli, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gianluca Pessotto, Pepe is a man for all seasons and all positions and his current goalscoring form (three goals in three for the first time in his career) underlines his contribution.
Conte: “It was a very difficult start and Napoli immediately played at a high tempo, but we seemed almost as if we were waiting for them to tire themselves out.”
Mazzarri: “We had a spectacular first half while our strength held out, but unfortunately we paid the price for the many fixtures. When the games notch up, you pay for it… We had a similar problem against Manchester City, as we knew we were facing a top club and lost sharpness due to fatigue, so the fear of not getting the points sets in…I always tell my players we can’t go at 1,000mph all the time, but it’s one thing to say and another to do. We must learn how to speed up at the right moment, otherwise we use up all our energy. We were on the ropes in the second half, as our legs started to give way…I could see we lost our stamina after the break.”
It’s fascinating that Mazzarri knew his side was vulnerable late on when fatigue set in, and Conte thought Napoli would tire too, which is probably why he didn’t make any substitutions until the game was at 3-3.
Mazzarri isn’t blessed with the biggest squad, but his failure to rotate has been particularly obvious this season, probably not sustainable in the Champions League as well as the league. Last season Napoli were kings of the late winner, now opposition managers see them as vulnerable in the closing stages.
Part 2- the crucial change
At 2-0 down, it was amazing that Conte emerged for the second half with the same XI that contested the first, but he did make a crucial change.
Estigarribia was pushed higher up the pitch to become more like a left-winger and forcing back Maggio back to more like a right-back (a move that clearly benefited Juventus, both in basic territorial terms and because that puts Estigarribia into a position he’s more comfortable in, and Maggio into a position he’s less comfortable in).
Lichsteiner wasn’t a force in the second half, but Chiellini was a cross between a left-sided centre-back and an attacking left-back, tucking in narrow without the ball but pushing on down the flank. All three Juventus goals were scored from a left-of-centre position, and Chiellini had another great chance in the 78th minute from that side of the pitch.
It took some key position changes, but eventually Conte’s initial focus on the left side of the pitch worked. They needed to be more aggressive though – it wasn’t about stopping Maggio playing, it was about attacking him.