Napoli vs Juventus (Serie A)

01/03/13

Second hosts first in Serie A with Napoli looking to reduce Juventus’ six point lead.

Walter Mazzarri will decide between Pablo Armero and Juan Zuniga for the left wing back role, while Christian Maggio should return on the right. His only other selection concern is likely to be who joins Edison Cavani and Marek Hamsik in attack – does the experienced Goran Pandev return or will Mazzarri continue with young Lorenzo Insigne? Napoli’s forward selection will be important as they have failed to score in their last four games. Should Insigne be selected he would also play slightly deeper than Pandev, making Napoli a 3-4-2-1 shape, which would have ramifications for the tactical battle.

Antonio Conte will hope to welcome Giorgio Chiellini back to the starting line-up after missing two months to injury. In midfield Arturo Vidal faces a race to be fit, but Paul Pogba will be ready to step in should the Chilean miss out. In attack Juventus are rarely predictable – Mirko Vucinic has been in favour of late, so Sebastian Giovinco and Alessandro Matri are most probably competing for the remaining forward position.

The close mirroring of the teams’ formations makes this a game likely to be settled by small margins and tactical nuances. It is telling that the loser of three of the last four meetings had a man sent off – Friday’s game could be a similar story.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Tactical Comparison: 3-4-1-2 vs 3-1-4-2

The two teams are perfectly styled to smother their opponent. Both sides have three defenders against two attackers and five versus five in midfield, including Hamsik in an advanced role to mirror the deep positioning of Andrea Pirlo.

Usually the tactical contest focuses on which players are likely to have space and time due to the nature of the opposition’s formation, but in this game only a centre back on either side is technically ‘free’. Therefore there will be enormous emphasis on the defenders to use the ball effectively. In this respect Juventus have a sizable advantage – Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are all comfortable in possession, with pass completion percentages of 90.4%, 89.3% and 90.3% respectively, compared to Miguel Britos (81.6%), Paolo Cannavaro (78.2%) and Hugo Campagnaro (85.6%). Chiellini will be particularly important as he has the ability to step out of the defensive line and offer Pirlo support in dictating play from deep.

Elsewhere advantages will be gained by players winning individual battles. Both pairs of wing backs will be in direct competition for supremacy down the wings. In midfield Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami, Vidal and Claudio Marchisio are all energetic yet technical players competing for midfield space. Juventus may have a stronger back three, but Edison Cavani is the outstanding forward on show and gives Napoli the more potent forward line.

But probably the most influential battle will be between the playmakers, Hamsik and Pirlo. The two players play in very different positions, and yet their roles are actually quite similar. Both are responsible for linking the defensive part of the team to the attack – Pirlo by collecting the ball from the back three and looking for direct passes into the forwards or wide to the wing backs, while Hamsik carries the ball from Napoli’s midfield into the attacking third, looking to create chances or work a shooting opportunity. But they also have a defensive brief. Hamsik presses energetically in an attempt to win the ball back high up the pitch, while Pirlo occupies the space ahead of Juventus’ defence. It is rare for a team’s playmaker to be so involved in the defensive phase, so the battle between Hamsik and Pirlo will not solely be in the attacking sense.

Tactical Adjustments: Player movement

With the tactical contest so tight, movement will be vital to find space. With Chiellini’s capacity to advance already discussed, there are two other main areas of movement to consider – Napoli’s lateral movement in attack and Juventus’ exploitation of space between the lines.

All of Napoli’s forwards (including Hamsik) are comfortable playing on the wing so they will habitually move into wide areas and occasionally resemble a front three. This will be vital in finding space away from their markers and dragging opponents out of position. Cavani and Pandev will both look to move out to the flanks in an attempt to open holes in Juventus’ defensive line for the other to exploit. This will not be easy as both Chiellini and Barzagli have operated at full back previously and are comfortable defending wide areas, but it will still test their cohesion with their defensive partners. Meanwhile Hamsik will look to exploit the space behind Juventus’ wing backs and either find time away from Pirlo or drag him away from his central holding position. Pirlo is not one for moving wide, so if Hamsik does move to the flanks he is more likely to be covered by relevant wing back, which in itself will open up space for Napoli elsewhere.

Juventus’ forwards also have the capcity to move wide, but with Napoli playing without a designated holding player they are more likely to have success dropping deeper and linking with their midfielders between the lines. Both Vidal and Marchisio are excellent at running through opponent’s midfields and finding space near the edge of the penalty area. Vucinic and Giovinco in particular are also adept at dropping off the front line to find space, which might give the latter a greater chance of starting the game over Matri. This is a dangerous area for Napoli – Mazzarri likes his side to remain compact, but with chances likely to come from quick transitions a failure to adequately defend the space between defence and midfield may be crucial.

Individual Analysis: Napoli’s forward selection

Mazzarri’s choice in attack could have a large influence on the shape of the game. Should he select Pandev to play alongside Cavani, the tactical battle will be as described. Yet if he selects Insigne, Napoli have the option of operating in a 3-4-2-1 system that could pose Juventus more questions.

Suddenly Napoli would have Cavani up against three Juventus centre backs, but two advanced players operating either side of Pirlo. Considering Pirlo’s lack of mobility, Mazzarri would surely expect these players to have success in finding space either side of Juventus’ playmaker. Realistically this would force one of Conte’s defenders to step out from defence on a regular basis to combat Napoli’s duel threat between the lines. This would upset Juventus’ defensive arrangement and rely on excellent communication along the back three as Hamsik and Insigne move across the pitch. Such confusion is likely to give Cavani the opportunity to find space in dangerous areas.

Playing Insigne in such a big game is a gamble given his inexperience, but from a tactical point of view he may be what Mazzarri needs to unsettle Juventus.

Summary

Counter attacking may become the pattern of the game. Both sides are comfortable doing so – Napoli have countered effectively for a couple of seasons with the movement and pace of Hamsik and Cavani, whilst Juventus can rely on the long-range passing of Pirlo.

In such a tight, tactical battle, individual quality becomes all-important. Chiellini offers Juventus an option unavailable to Napoli, so his influence will be vital. Elsewhere Mazzarri will need Cavani to have a strong game. Chances are likely to be at a premium, so Napoli will need their star striker to take anything that comes his way. Ultimately in a game with such tactical balance, it is likely to be the manager or the players able to change their team’s shape to exploit an opponent’s weakness that is successful. Insigne may be that option for Napoli.

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