The Coppa Italia final wasn’t the one for ages – after a dire 90 minutes of football, only the penalties separated the two sides. However, Juventus’ sterile performance caught the eyes of many, and we’ll dive into some of the tactical nuances of the match, explaining how Gennaro Gattuso was able to shut down Maurizio Sarri’s star-studded side.
Both teams lined up in the basic formation of 4-3-3. Sarri opted for Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, and Cristiano Ronaldo upfront. Given that the Portuguese nominally starts on the left-wing, Blaise Matuidi was also in the line-up to cover for Ronaldo’s defensive weakness and patch up the empty spaces in the defensive phase of the game. The combination of Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa on the right was supposed to nullify Mario Rui and Lorenzo Insigne with their physical strength.
Napoli started up in their typical 4-3-3 with Hirving Lozano still on cold ice after a falling out with Gattuso. Fabian Ruiz and Piotr Zielinski looked for spaces between the lines, and Diego Demme stayed deep, protecting the center-backs and covering for full-backs when necessary.
As if they wanted to play to Ronaldo’s ego, most of Juve’s attacks early on went through the left side. Alex Sandro overlapped, with Ronaldo receiving the ball, and Blaise Matuidi moved between the lines to provide an additional option. However, a lack of creativity from the trio quickly ended this experiment, and after the opening 20 minutes, the ball very rarely arrived at the left side while Napoli were in the deep zone.
Since Napoli didn’t hesitate to drop deep and clog up spaces between the lines, the Zebras’ midfielders didn’t have much to work with. The only creative outlet, Miralem Pjanic, was tightly marked by Dries Mertens for the whole time the both of them were on the pitch. What’s more impressive, Napoli’s defensive discipline never fell off during the match. Rodrigo Bentancur was unable to take more responsibility, displaying a disappointing performance despite being Juve’s rising hope this season. Thus, it’s no coincidence that Leonardo Bonucci acted as an additional midfielder at times, by pinging long balls and through passes with excellent precision.
However, with all that in mind, Sarri hesitated to bomb his men forward. Cuadrado took on the role of the third center-back with Juve in possession as Sarri feared to leave space for Insigne, Napoli’s main counter-attacking option.
Finally, with Napoli’s wingers always tracking back, and midfielders shutting down the middle, Juve didn’t have space for dangerous crosses into the box. This played a big role in excluding Ronaldo from the game since the Portuguese is unable to make a difference by dribbling on the wing, something that Juve badly needed yesterday.
Perhaps the biggest chance for Juventus arrived after a high-press. In this situation, Pjanic played a key role by risking and leaving his space to close down pass for Jose Callejon. Had he missed, it would’ve been a dangerous counter-attack for Napoli, but quick reactions led for Juve’s best chance of the match.
Matuidi and Alex Sandro pressing, Pjanic standing on the right edge of the screen
Pjanic recognizes the threat and closes down a potential pass from Callejon to Fabian Ruiz. With Matuidi making a good recovery run, the only option for Callejon is Nikola Maksimovic. Dybala knows that and reacts accordingly.
Dybala steals the ball and passes it to Ronaldo, but Alex Meret saves his shot
In general, Juve did press their opponents, but they did so in a controlled fashion, primarily making sure that they didn’t leave any space behind. The situation above was an exception rather than the rule. This is best presented by the fact that the Bianconeri had no problem leaving Demme completely free on the ball, opting to close down the more dangerous Fabian Ruiz and Zielinski. Cuadrado tracked Insigne all the time and did so pretty successfully for the most part.
What surprised the most was Sarri’s decision to substitute Pjanic with Federico Bernardeschi. Bentancur was the more obvious candidate to leave the pitch, given that the Uruguayan couldn’t provide anything between the lines, and he also didn’t have Pjanic’s creativity playing the deeper role. On the other hand, taking off Douglas Costa for Danilo just confirmed Sarri’s fear of Insigne and the fact that his primary goal was protecting Gigi Buffon rather than going all-out to win.
Even though they displayed a fantastic defensive presence, Napoli left us hanging when it came to the attacking part of the game. Given that both Insigne and Callejon had to stay narrow to close off the midfield, this cut off their counter-attacking potential, paired with Juve’s careful approach.
The Neapolitans set up in a 4-1-4-1 while defending. As we already noted, Mertens tightly marked Pjanic, and Diego Demme played between the lines, cleaning up any potential mess between his midfield and defense. The center-backs (Maksimovic and Koulibaly) stayed strictly at the back.
4-1-4-1 with Demme between the lines and Mertens following Pjanic
The center-backs staying strictly at the back is a situation with Gattuso’s signature all over it. All players knew exactly how to behave in defense, and their concentration followed suite.
Maksimovic tracks Ronaldo, but when the Portuguese comes into Demme’s zone, the following happens
Maksimovic falls back to his position immediately, and Demme takes over the Portuguese. This move, in turn, disables Bonucci’s long-ball towards Dybala who was hoping to use the space left by Maksimovic
There really isn’t much to show from Napoli’s first-half performance. They didn’t have much possession because Gattuso didn’t want his full-backs to go high up the pitch, meaning that his team would lose the ball rather quickly due to the lack of width and options. Napoli always try playing through balls for Zielinski and Fabian Ruiz behind the midfielders marking them (Bentancur and Pjanic in this case). This means that a ball-playing center-back is crucial in this role. For example, look at this beautiful fake pass from Maksimovic, opening up the lane for Fabian Ruiz.
The center-back looks to the left and positions himself as if he’s gonna play a long ball. Look at Pjanic and Matuidi immediately reacting and leaving their position.
This leaves just enough space for Maksimovic to play in the pass for Fabian Ruiz, who now has a lot of space in front of him
However, these situations were far-in-between, meaning that Gattuso had to change things up at half-time. It was obvious that Fabian Ruiz played deeper in the second half, providing a much-needed tempo and flow in possession of his team. This resulted in Napoli having 57% of the ball in the second half. With both Fabian Ruiz and Demme playing a deeper role, Di Lorenzo could also go forward and open up some width for his team.
With the match opening up, Napoli seemed to be rising, and Gattuso’s decision to bring on Arkadiusz Milik and Matteo Politano proved to be a good one, with the duo adding dynamism against a tired Juve side. What’s worse for Sarri, his team looked very lethargic in the second half, reacting slowly and losing the balance.
This match just confirmed what we all knew – Napoli under Gattuso enjoy being the underdog in a defensive position. The Italian midfielder’s no-nonsense approach brought much-needed discipline to the side. This, in turn, allows them to beat stronger teams by being patient and waiting for their opportunities. However, it will be interesting to see how they handle the weaker teams, where Napoli will have to create a whole lot more to win points week in and week out.
On the other side, the pressure is piling up on Sarri. Juve’s mechanisms in the game are almost non-existing – the players aren’t moving off the ball well enough, which makes their passing sterile and non-threatening. Unlike Max Allegri, Sarri cannot handle dropping back and throwing a deadly punch with pure quality alone. The identity crisis Juve are going through is a deep one, and it remains to be seen how they move forward, especially with Lazio lurking around the corner, ready to prey any vulnerable Zebra…