The form book was ripped up at the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday evening as Gennaro Gattuso proved the doubters wrong by outsmarting Maurizio Sarri, sending his stale Juventus home empty handed. With Napoli struggling in the bottom half of the Serie A table and a mighty 27 points behind Juve prior to kick-off, a Bianconeri victory appeared the likely outcome. However, Gattuso’s players executed a simple but effective game plan to claim a morale boosting win.
An intense atmosphere in the stands was met by a subdued opening 45 minutes on the pitch. This encounter was very different to those we had witnessed in the recent past. It was not a thrilling 90 minutes with both teams grappling to grab control of proceedings. Instead, it had a tactical edge with Gattuso correctly choosing to stifle his opponent rather than take them on. His decision was vindicated by the result.
The Partenopei made their intentions clear early. There was little desire to press high, with Napoli instead opting to retreat into a compact 4-5-1 block and prevent Juve finding any space in-between or beyond their midfield line. The Old Lady duly accepted their host’s invitation to have the ball, but there was a severe lack of fluidity to their play and it quickly became apparent that the make-up of Sarri’s starting XI was not suited to this type of challenge. Juve’s play was sterile, Napoli were locking them out comfortably.
The home team’s midfield trio of Diego Demme, Fabian Ruiz and Piotr Zielinski prevented any ball progression and were quick to swarm the likes of Paulo Dybala, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain when they received possession in central areas. The away team probed away, working the ball to their full-backs, who often restored to crossing from deep areas. The results had little to no effect on the home defence. Napoli were drawing Juve in and it was working.
Napoli’s strategy was far from a smash and grab, they had that majority share of possession and Gattuso had constructed an idea on how to win the game, not just keep Juve out. Stretching the pitch, focusing the majority of their play through their full-backs and wingers was a clever ploy from Rino.
Mario Rui and Elseid Hysaj were the individual players with the highest amount of touches across the game with 102 and 82 respectively, whilst Mario Rui attempted the highest number of passes (89) closely followed by Hysaj’s 67. Gattuso knew Sarri would want his team to press, so the former Milan coach teased Juve into doing just that with those two playing a pivotal role.
From goal-kicks Napoli would have up to five players in their penalty box with Rui and Hysaj supporting near-by. This instantly sucked the opposition in and the spaces Napoli needed to attack were already created. The Italian champions simply didn’t have the energy or players to press effectively and prevent Gattuso’s team escaping. The Juve trident attack may look great on paper but out of possession their inability to cope with the demands of pressing causes their team a problem.
Throughout the 90 minutes there was a theme to Napoli’s play, always tempting Juve to come and get them. In possession they would use a number of sideways and backwards passes, patient possession that pulled Juve around exposing their biggest defensive weakness, trying to cover open spaces quickly. Napoli timed their use of long forward passes well and attempted nearly double the amount of long balls as their opponent. Just as Juventus began to creep up on play, an Azzurri attacker would spring forward to stretch Juve further. Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Zielinski were willing runners in behind all night. Arkadiusz Milik contributed by intelligently dropping off his markers as an alternative target for the direct pass.
Napoli handled possession well and played smoothly – sometimes easily - through Juventus. The same cannot be said of La Vecchia Signora. It was a lethargic, lazy display that Mister Sarri must take some responsibility for. All of Juve’s play was in front of Napoli, there was little movement off the ball and no attempt to disconnect the defensive shield they were up against. Ronaldo’s goal was a rare example of a forward run that asked Napoli to defend facing their own goal.
CR7 and co lost possession on 18 occasions, with 14 of them coming from a loose touch or bad pass. That number is double that of Napoli. Blaise Matuidi was his team’s biggest culprit handing over play on four occasions, including a poor cross that resulted in the counter-attack that lead to Zielinski’s opener. The continued inclusion of Matuidi is baffling to many Juventini.
Sarri bemoaned his side’s attitude, but when you have options in your squad that are fresh with a point to prove, you can be the person to inject the missing motivation into the team. In the end it was a deserved victory for Napoli and Gattuso, one they desperately needed with the hope that it will prove to be the catalyst for a strong end to the season.
As for Juve, they unexpectedly saw their lead at the top cut and questions around their performances remain. The title race is very much on in Serie A.