There are still 15 rounds to go in the Serie A season, yet it already feels as if we’re just waiting for the Superbowl: Juventus v Napoli in Week 34. Both sides are flattening everything in their path, creating a massive gap from the chasing pack, who are now not so much chasing as panting on their knees, watching the front two disappear over the horizon.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Inter have no European commitments to worry about and a practically unchanged squad, so the stage was set for them to have a real say in the Scudetto race. Instead, Luciano Spalletti has run into the same problems every Nerazzurri Coach has encountered and that is the intrinsically weak mentality of a side that cannot react to setbacks. No Serie A victories since December 3, they were bullied at San Siro by relegation battlers Crotone. If ever there was a sign that you’ve lost the fear factor with your opponents, that was it.
With Mauro Icardi injured, Spalletti had to shake things up and Eder did deliver with a goal in the 4-3-3 formation. The problem lies with their mentality, as after the performance against SPAL followed along similar lines, Inter tend to take the lead and then almost invite a late equaliser.
Roma saw their negative streak come to an end at the Bentegodi and Eusebio Di Francesco also tweaked his tactics. It’s rare to see this oddly defensive disciple of Zdenek Zeman stray from the 4-3-3, but a good Coach is one who moulds the side to suit the players at his disposal. Quite simply, Radja Nainggolan cannot continue to be wasted in midfield. He needs to be further forward and Edin Dzeko desperately requires more support so he doesn’t look so isolated. Could this be the path to a new era for the Giallorossi?
Milan already went through that process once Gennaro Gattuso took over from Vincenzo Montella and Suso confirmed as much in his post-match interview in Udine. Even during the course of a campaign, you cannot be too fundamentalist about tactics, otherwise you risk stagnation.
In theory, Napoli ought to be predictable and easy to neutralise by now. Everyone knows the Maurizio Sarri moves, including a Lorenzo Insigne cut inside to curl with his right foot and the cross to the back post for Jose Callejon. Nonetheless, they march on because the ball is still moved at enough of a pace to wrong-foot opponents. Once the tempo slows, the Partenopei are in serious trouble.
Seeing Dries Mertens limp off in Benevento brought home another issue that could be crucial going forward in this tight Scudetto race. There is no Plan B. Arkadiusz Milik and Faouzi Ghoulam are still a way off fitness and no alternatives were brought in during the January transfer window. The bench once Mertens was injured at the Stadio Vigorito was disconcerting viewing.
Juventus have no such concerns. They proved that Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, Andrea Barzagli and Blaise Matuidi can all be absent and yet still smash Sassuolo 7-0. Max Allegri hinted he’ll engage in his now traditional February change of tactics to keep the Old Lady fresh going into the crunch period of the campaign. If the Bianconeri do end up taking a seventh straight Serie A title, a lot of it will be down to strength in depth and versatility.
We saw more experimentation and evolution this weekend, as Atalanta had to do without Papu Gomez, using Bryan Cristante and Josip Ilicic to support the centre-forward Andrea Petagna. In the same match, Chievo fielded probably the most defensive formation we’ve seen in the League this season. In crisis and desperate for points they may be, but the Flying Donkeys are doing nothing to make neutrals support them. Perhaps relegation rather than hanging on like a bad smell every year would do them good, freshen up their ideas.