Juventus 2-0 Napoli: substitutes settle a tight encounter
First versus second in Serie A – Juventus eventually got the breakthrough, and now lead Napoli by three points.
Antonio Conte’s main decision was about which forward combination to select – he went with Fabio Quagliarella and Sebastian Giovinco, the same duo he selected at Fiorentina, last time ZM covered Juventus. Marco Storari played, as Gigi Buffon was injured.
Walter Mazzarri rarely makes any surprise selection decisions, and his XI was as expected, with Alessandro Gamberini starting on the left of the back three.
Tight, tense and tactical. These sides have played each other so frequently in the past twelve months – with Conte choosing a system that deliberately mirrors Napoli’s – that it rather felt like the sides knew each other too well, and both needed a surprise element.
3-5-2 is now Juve’s usual shape, but Conte originally started playing that way specifically against other sides that play three at the back, particularly Udinese and Napoli. “All teams who play 3-5-2 cause us problems,” says Mazzarri.
It was also a 3-5-2 v 3-5-2 clash in the Fiorentina v Juventus game, and this was a similar game – the sides lacked creativity in the centre of the pitch. There was a difference in the formation battle, however – against Fiorentina both sides’ spare man was their deep-lying playmaker, whereas Napoli are more 3-4-1-2 than 3-1-4-2, with Marek Hamsik high up the pitch.
Hamsik v Pirlo
The key battle was therefore Hamsik against Andrea Pirlo, a clash we’ve seen many times over the past year. The general situation has been simple – Hamsik’s done a good defensive job on the Juventus regista and prevented him from spraying forward passes, but has struggled to break past Pirlo in order to offer an attacking threat.
For the first half, that was again the case – Pirlo wasn’t creating a great deal, but Hamsik only evaded him once when Napoli had possession – skipping to the left to attempt a through-ball towards Edinson Cavani, which was blocked.
The battle in midfield (Gokhan Inler-Valon Behrami versus Arturo Vidal-Claudio Marchisio) was entertaining but neither side conclusively won the confrontation – Inler and Marchisio were probably the better two players of this quartet.
But Juventus pressed better than Napoli, who are still accustomed to sitting back – and the key feature of the game was its sheer physicality. There were lots of tackles and aerial duels, many involving Giorgio Chiellini, who epitomised Juve’s fighting quality. The overall physicality had a detrimental effect on the flow, however – and with too many stoppages, the match took a while to get going.
On either flank there was a one-versus-one wing-back battle – the star performer was Kwadwo Asamoah, who kept Christian Maggio quiet. It’s worth remembering that in Conte’s first game as Juventus coach against Napoli, he played Marcelo Estigarribia on the right, specifically to counter Maggio’s attacking threat – but the Napoli right-wing-back had a hand in all three goals that night, rendering the tactic unsuccessful and forcing Conte to switch to a back four.
Asamoah’s job wasn’t spectacular, and it was basically about energy and off-the-ball running, but in preventing Maggio from having a consistent impact upon the game, it can be deemed a success.
The one player whose movement was particularly interesting was Giovinco, Juve’s deep-lying forward. He could move left or right, he could drop into midfield to become an extra man, or he could push higher up and offer a threat in behind the defence. Napoli’s back three struggled to cope with his positioning, and Juventus tried to replicate their tactic against Chelsea, where one forward dropped deep and the other sprinted in behind – although since Napoli had a spare man, this was less effective.
Napoli’s pressing was more intense immediately after half-time, although the Hamsik-Pirlo battle changed. For some reason, both players found more space, probably due to Hamsik not marking as tightly as in the first half – after all, he’d been keener to stick to Pirlo than vice-versa.
This meant the game was more open, there were more promising situations close to goal (although still a relative lack of clear-cut chances) and many involved Pirlo or Hamsik. For example, the Slovakian played a part in the move that created what initially seemed like a one-on-one chance for Goran Pandev – although he was stopped by a miraculous piece of defensive work by Claudio Marchisio.
But Pirlo was starting to take charge, both moving higher up the pitch to become more of a classic playmaker, and dropping deep to receive the ball from the defenders or Storari, then thumping superb long balls over the top of the defence, most notably for a (difficult) chance wasted by substitute Alessandro Matri.
As so often, Pirlo became the game’s key player. As Paolo Bandini of the Guardian writes: “His had been a relatively quiet game, boxed in by the combination of Marek Hamsik and a packed three-man central midfield, but there was nothing Napoli could do to restrict his delivery at set-pieces. From a corner on the left he picked out the substitute Martin Caceres, who headed home with aplomb.”
Just as Caceres was a substitute, introduced in a slightly unfamiliar left-wing-back role in place of the injured Asamoah, so too was the other goalscorer, Paul Pogba. And when you consider that Matri – Juve’s first change, in place of Quagliarella – also had an excellent chance, it becomes clear that Juventus’ use of the bench was crucial.
The moves didn’t directly lead to a goal – Caceres’ was from a set-piece, Pogba’s a fine volley from distance – but Juve had increased the pressure and upped the tempo via the bench. This was, after all, a very physical game, and Mazzarri only changed things at 2-0 down.
There was a specific battle and a general war. The battle? Hamsik against Pirlo – Hamsik nullified him for the first half, but drifted away in the second, and Pirlo’s impact upon the game was greater.
The war? The physicality across the field. Juventus pressed better, ran more purposefully and put pressure upon Napoli’s defence more frequently. “They just want soldiers, people who only go straight on their tracks,” Antonio Cassano said of Juventus this week. It was a sweeping generalisation, and an insult to Pirlo, but this performance fitted that description.