Juventus sit one point behind league leaders Roma after a convincing victory over Napoli.
Antonio Conte made two changes to the side that drew Real Madrid in midweek. Angelo Ogbonna joined Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at centre back, while Mauricio Isla made an appearance as a right wingback.
Rafa Benitez assembled his side in a 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo Higuain leading the line ahead of Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami formed the double pivot.
Two moments of individual brilliance may have put the match out of reach, but Juventus were terrific in and out of possession.
Juventus’ great start
Conte’s men started the match in a positive manner, which has been a recurring theme throughout the early part of this campaign.
Shockingly, it only took two minutes for the Bianconeri to take the lead. From an initial short corner, Pirlo squared a pass to Isla, and the Chilean’s deflected shot fell to Llorente – who was marginally offside – and the Spaniard tapped the ball into the net. Three minutes later, Pirlo received his cleared corner kick at the edge of the box, and the Italian received time and space to deliver a cross at the far post to Paul Pogba, who nodded the ball across goal to Bonucci, but Pepe Reina made an excellent save to deny the Italian.
It was an ideal start for Conte’s men – they created two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, took the lead, and pegged Napoli into their own half, during the opening 10 minutes.
To an extent, Napoli’s shape without the ball was the cause for Juventus’ first half dominance. In Napoli’s away matches against top-sides this season, Benitez’s men have been cautious, and focused on attacking teams on the counter. Here, they dropped too deep, and failed to limit Juve’s activity in the final third.
Higuain and Hamsik dropped off near Pirlo, allowing Bonucci, Barzagli and Ogbonna time on the ball. Benitez’s men allowed Juve’s centrebacks to push forward, and their wingbacks to advance higher up the pitch. Occasionally, Higuain and Napoli’s wide men would press Juve’s defenders, but that left Pirlo as a free outlet to receive the ball.
Another odd feat was Napoli’s defensive approach towards the Italian maestro when he had the ball in Napoli’s half. No pressure was applied on Pirlo as he was allowed to spread passes to the advancing wingbacks.
Coincidentally, Kwadwo Asamoah and Isla was Pirlo’s preferred outlet going forward. Napoli’s two banks of four were organized, but their shape lacked structure. There was space between the lines for Juve to exploit and their press was non-existent, which allowed Conte’s men freedom to express themselves.
Unlike Napoli, Juventus’ shape without the ball was simple, yet effective. Similar to Napoli’s approach, Tevez and Llorente preferred not to press Napoli’s centrebacks, as they stuck close to Behrami and Inler – preventing the midfield duo from receiving the ball. This left the Napoli fullbacks as the free outlets out wide, but Vidal and Pogba closed them down admirably, while Asamoah and Isla tracked Insigne and Callejon’s runs.
Napoli failed to get the ball into Higuain, who was left isolated against Juventus’ three centrebacks, whereas Hamsik was unable to find space between the lines. Conte’s men nullified Napoli’s attacking threat by winning individual battles across the pitch, and limiting Hamsik’s space in the final third.
Another interesting feat was the dissimilarity in cohesion between both attacks. Juventus was fluid, their passing tempo was quick, and their utilization of wide areas was pivotal. Napoli struggled in wide areas against Arsenal at the Emirates a few weeks ago, and Conte’s men created their best chances from this source of attack, as they focused on isolating their fullbacks – while they may be great going forward, their defensive abilities are mediocre.
- 25th minute: Tevez received a pass from Pirlo between the lines and flicked a ball behind Christian Maggio to an unmarked Asamoah, but the Ghanaian’s shot hit the side netting.
- 38th minute: Vidal received a cross-field ball from Asamoah, and he played a defence splitting pass to the oncoming Isla. The Chilean delivered a sensational cross to Llorente, but Reina denied him at the near post.
- 65th minute: Pirlo spreads a pass to Isla on the right flank, and the Chilean squared the ball to Tevez on the edge of the box. Vidal’s movement led to Raul Albiol’s slip, and Tevez slipped the ball into the Chilean midfielder, but he scuffed his shot at the near post and it hit the side netting.
Juventus received several opportunities to increase their lead from wide areas, but great goalkeeping from Reina, and poor finishing kept Napoli in the match.
There was a gradual lift in Napoli’s performance during the second half. Opposed to the first half, their work ethic improved when they lost the ball, as they instantly swarmed the Juventus defenders. Napoli pushed higher up the pitch, attempting to squeeze Conte’s men in their own half, and this led to their superiority in possession.
Nonetheless, Benitez’s men encountered the same issues in the second half, as they were unable to get behind the Juventus backline. But with Juventus sitting deeper, Hamsik’s movement enabled him to find gaps to exploit. Similar to the first half, Hamsik was forced to drop near the halfway line to receive the ball, and help Napoli push forward.
The Slovak international was neutralized in the first half, as he’s unable to influence the match from a deeper position. With Juventus 10-yards deeper, Hamsik found pockets of space to receive the ball and he attempted to overload wide areas, and penetrate in the final third.
- 63rd minute: Ogbonna failed to clear Pablo Armero’s cross and it fell to Hamsik – who snuck behind Pogba – but the Slovak’s shot towards the near post hit the side netting.
- 77th minute: Hamsik found space on the left flank, and played a splendid ball to Insigne – who made an intelligent run behind Barzagli – but Buffon saved Insigne’s shot at the near post.
Also, it’s key to point out Insigne’s attacking threat throughout the match. Whilst Napoli lacked invention and creativity in the final third, the Italian winger looked like the only player capable of snagging an equalizer. In the first half, he had two shots outside of the box that flashed inches of wide of the post and cross bar. Early on in the second half, he nearly beat Buffon with a promising curling free kick, but once again Buffon made a vital save. Insigne’s movement allowed him to get into great positions to threaten Juventus – the Italian was Napoli’s main attacking threat throughout the match but he was unable to beat Buffon when the opportunity was presented.
Benitez’s men improved in the second half with Hamsik and Insigne leading the charge, but Napoli’s standout performers lacked that extra bit of quality around the 18-yard box.
Although he didn’t add to his six goals in 11 matches, Tevez continued to shine for the Bianconeri. He was arguably the man of the match as he produced another fantastic display behind Llorente. Tevez found space between the lines to receive the ball and link play with his teammates, he made intelligent runs into space to open up holes in the backline, and he swiftly dribbled past Napoli defenders with ease.
The Argentine has settled well in his role as the second striker as his movement in the final third to allow runners to attack behind him, and his ability to play intricate passes in tight spaces has seen Tevez develop into a significant cog in Juventus’ attack. Tevez became a nuisance towards Napoli’s backline, and Inler’s foul on him – which led to Pirlo’s fantastic free kick goal – displayed the threat the Argentine poses in the final third.
Pirlo and Pogba added two goals in seven minutes to put the match out of reach, but Tevez continued to display why he’s currently the best striker in Italy.
Juventus move within one point of league leaders Roma, but more importantly they displayed that they’re still favourites to lift their third consecutive Scudetto. They nullified Hamsik’s threat in the final third and their overall shape without the ball was impressive for large portions of the match. On the other hand Napoli’s poor shape, and work ethic without the ball allowed Juve’s wingbacks, Tevez and Pirlo space to thrive in.
“We needed more possession and to be more dangerous, but above all to show the character and quality we knew we had,” Benitez said.
“We know Pirlo has quality, but we can’t play an entire game just for one player. We knew it could be difficult, but we know that in future we can play as we did in the second half,” he added.
Napoli improved in the second half, and although they’re undergoing a transitional period, their performances in big matches and Hamsik’s minimal influence shouldn’t be overlooked. Napoli’s role in the title race is unknown as the season is long, but this match highlighted the contrast in quality between the two title rivals.