There are talking points aplenty ahead of Sunday’s showdown between Juventus and Napoli. The Partenopei are flying high at the top of the table and hope to avenge last season’s epic 4-3 defeat at the Allianz Stadium. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo hopes to maintain his red-hot form against a potential title foe.
Those storylines fill countless column inches ahead of what promises to be an absorbing encounter, but the battle on the sidelines could prove just as fascinating as the action on the pitch. Former Milan and Italy teammates Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso will pit their wits against each other for the first time as managers. Despite their shared history, Sunday’s dugout duel will be a study in contrasts.
Pirlo and Gattuso forged a close bond during their storied careers, but they have taken divergent paths to the top of the managerial tree. Gattuso honed his craft in Switzerland, Greece and the lower reaches of Italian football before he was given a chance with the Rossoneri. On the other hand, Pirlo was given the keys to Italy’s most successful club before he had overseen a single senior game.
That precociousness is reminiscent of the effortless way in which the “Maestro” patrolled the middle of the park. Even without any top-level experience in coaching, Pirlo’s status as a legend of the sport has instantly commanded the respect of a star-studded dressing room, while his serene demeanor will help keep The Old Lady’s biggest names onside.
Although he has mellowed out somewhat since his playing days, Gattuso retains a spikiness that can lead to confrontations with his charges. Valuable assets such as Hirving Lozano and Allan have both faced consequences for displaying an apathetic attitude in training, with the latter shipped off to Everton last month after invoking Rino’s wrath.
Complete commitment is a must for the two-time Serie A champion, who has shown a similar devotion to the 4-3-3 over the course of his coaching career. Gattuso has favored that system wherever he has gone and uses it in Naples on a regular basis.
Yet, the incorporation of record signing Victor Osimhen appears to have provoked a slight tactical shift. Gattuso deployed the Nigerian at the tip of a 4-2-3-1 on his first start for the club against Genoa, and that decision paid off handsomely in a 6-0 demolition of Il Grifone. Although the ex-Lille striker did not find the back of the net, the threat of his speed in behind opened up loads of space ahead of the visiting defense for Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and the aforementioned Lozano to take advantage of.
An identical setup could work wonders against The Old Lady, who were repeatedly caught out by runs in between the lines during their 2-2 draw with Roma. Napoli have the weapons to exploit that weakness, but will have to bypass a voracious high press first.
That coordinated harrying has been a hallmark of Pirlo’s first matches in charge, even though early evidence suggests that it could be awhile before his players fully assimilate the nuances of his tactical demands. A hybrid 3-5-2/3-2-5 formation failed to provide the requisite support for Ronaldo and strike partner Álvaro Morata in Rome, while the energetic forward thrusts of Juan Cuadrado were nearly non-existent from an unfamiliar left wing-back berth.
The growing pains are sure to continue, but Juventus can always call on the nous and quality of the deepest squad in the division. However, they are currently less than the sum of their parts, while Napoli appear to have found a groove under Gattuso. That familiarity could end up making the difference in a meeting between old friends who have traded shorts and boots for suits and ties.
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