Napoli, going for their first cup victory since 2014, entered the final off the back of a 1-1 draw with Inter which saw them through 2-1 on aggregate. Juve, with a similarly close affair, closed out a 0-0 against Milan to progress on away goals. The first week of the re-emergence of top-level Italian football culminated nicely in a showdown between Sarri’s Juve, and his former side Napoli, lead by a trophy-hungry Gattuso.
Juve made a change from the previous game, dropping Danilo in favour of Cuadrado, presumably trying to add to the threat down that channel with pace and attacking strength against Insigne and Mario Rui. Napoli fielded a more heavily changed team from 4 days prior, starting at the back with Meret in for the suspended Ospina and Rui in for Hysaj. Callejon and Fabian Ruiz occupied the right-hand side instead of Elmas and Politano.
From the start, we could see that Juve were relatively dominant in possession, and Gattuso had predictably formulated a solid shape and mentality to Napoli’s defence of this. From the first time Ronaldo got the ball in the threatening area down the left, Napoli were doubled up on him with Di Lorenzo and Callejon, and although Callejon was diligent in closing Ronaldo, his passing left a lot to be desired and he made a couple of errors early on which lead to Juve shots. Demme was clearly deployed still as the deep midfielder, in front of the back-four, who would receive passes and try to engage attackers so as to not dislodge the centre-backs from the deep positions too much. When Juve probed inside Napoli’s half, Demme was often sprinting to cover the space behind the man who engaged the player on the ball, whether it be on the left or right flank. He also followed runners when they tried to float into the space between the lines. Notably, Demme was still doing the deeper role when Allan came on late in the game, probably because Allan’s fresh legs were better served in providing the box-to-box role.
Fabian Ruiz was also helping out trying to Contain Juve alongside Demme at times, but the set-up from Gattuso was one that hindered Napoli in an attacking sense. It was clearly designed to stop their opponents from breaking through, not with a mind to facilitate quick transitions or counter-attacks that could easily surprise Sarri. The shape was aimed towards narrowing the play, and neither Callejon nor Insigne were really focusing on fast breaks or receiving the ball high up the pitch to start attacks. Similarly, the full-backs were not looking to overlap or rush forward. Mertens’ reward for signing a new contract was an evening following Pjanic around the Stadio Olimpico. For the first-half, at least, it was discipline and defence at the forefront, which has suited them well in previous games under Gattuso against the top teams. Napoli did have a few opportunities to work the ball forward in the first half; Demme is willing to play forward passes through the middle when there are gaps to do so, but it often requires a link in the chain between him and the front men. For example, if Zielinski or Ruiz are far enough ahead of Demme, there is often an in-between pass available if they can transition quickly. On occasions where the tempo wasn’t quick enough, or they didn’t have enough men forward, a pass was fired into Insigne which didn’t give much of a chance to continue a quick attack by linking up with runners.
It’s a catch-22 for Gattuso at times – you can’t defend and contain deep for long periods, and then initiate a period of attack without expecting the opposition to do the same to you. The transitions between defence and attack aren’t really available against a top team who are reluctant to give up the ball, so you have to be willing to either commit to breaking away from you structure for a while, or stay content with the defensive set-up and hope for chances later. Having said that, Napoli’s approach against the top teams in Serie A seems to have worked for them so far, grinding out results and familiarising themselves with Gattuso’s style.
There were routes for Sarri’s side to try and explore after settling into the rhythm of the game, the obvious one being to look for Ronaldo on the left, which was aided by Alex Sandro providing even further width. Another key component could be to use Bonucci and/or Pjanic to try and play more direct through the middle, hoping to use Dybala to float around between the lines. With Napoli’s compact style and disciplined attitude, it perhaps wasn’t much surprise that the majority of the play in the first half was down Juve’s left flank. Even without producing a goal or too much of a threat, it wasn’t a bad option, as we saw Ronaldo capitalising on Callejon’s mistake to bring a good save out of Meret early on as well as another chance later.
But crosses from the left didn’t seem particularly threatening, as the ball comes in you’re waiting for Ronaldo’s giant leap to connect with a header, only to realise he isn’t in the box because he’s out wide supporting Alex Sandro. This made it difficult for Juve to penetrate because Napoli were getting numbers to smother the left, and Juve couldn’t work a way through or produce many clear-cut moments for Ronaldo to cut inside. On the flip-side of this, if Ronaldo received the ball and cut inside to release the ball, it then gave him the option of staying in the box, forcing the play down the right-hand side to Douglas Costa. The main lack of ambition on Juve’s part was the role of Cuadrado, who didn’t mirror Alex Sandro’s role, but instead stayed deeper and didn’t look to overlap.
When needing to drop back and defend, Juve’s midfield and defence was rarely caught short, with Pjanic and Matuidi providing good cover and showing good mobility after the prolonged break. Napoli’s main threat was through midfield to find a route to Zielinski when he tried to move forward between the lines, but this was often contained, and the closing down that Juve did was sufficient. The main chance at the end of the first half for Napoli came when first Mertens, then Demme, tried to wriggle their way into the box and having shots saved.
Changes & development
Although the second half started off in a cautious and measured way, the game was played at a slightly higher tempo, and Napoli had their fair share of the ball in Juve’s half. Insigne was still dropping back to double-up on the left wing when retreating, but Mario Rui was trying to get forward where possible. Zielinski was still trying to provide a thrust forward through midfield to spark some kind of attack. Juve didn’t seem to have as much of the play through the middle, Bentancur wasn’t particularly effective, although not for the lack of trying. There were times when he pushed up high to try and press Napoli at the back, often on Demme, and then broke away to charge the ball down and win an interception, but was largely ineffective in causing any problems. You can see Bentancur’s growing confidence in the Juve side though, as he is pointing and instructing his team mates a lot of the time. Napoli continued to try to engage Pjanic, and Juve would often push up but only have one person rush the man on the ball, with Demme being allowed a slightly more effective role than his counterpart.
Douglas Costa was the one replaced on 60 minutes, by Danilo, allowing Cuadrado to push further forward. Gattuso responded minutes later by bringing on Milik and Politano for Callejon and Mertens, which looked to bring new life, with Milik dropping to try and receive the ball but also getting into the box as a target. Politano had a decent shot just after he came on and seemed to offer more impetus than Callejon. Milik missed a good chance, striking his first-time shot over after a good dummy from Politano. Napoli looked more dangerous after the changes and left Sarri slightly on the backfoot.
Bernardeschi replaced Pjanic, which seemed slightly odd, but hoping for an injection of energy and creativity further up the pitch. Bentancur left to play a sensible role in Pjanic’s absence in front of the defence, but the last 15 minutes seemed to pass him by and there wasn’t much point in him being on the pitch in such a position. Hysaj and Allan replaced Mario Rui and Fabio Ruiz, understandably, with Rui treading a bit of a fine line in the disciplinary area towards the latter stages, and Allan brought on for more energy in midfield. Cuadrado was brought off for Ramsey with 10mins left, with the Colombian’s failure to make much of an impact in the position further up the pitch. Elmas replaced a tired-looking Zielinski and the game appeared to be heading out towards a penalty shootout, until a last-gasp chance for Napoli. Bernardeschi needlessly let the ball roll away from him for a corner, and Politano ran over to take the corner – seemingly offering the option of an outswinger in favour of insigne’s inswinger. The header at the back post resulted in a scramble in front of goal that Buffon managed somehow to keep out.
As the game went into penalties, the sense was that Napoli were the team with the momentum and the more mental energy to win the game, which translated into the final outcome. Gattuso’s side won the shootout in pretty convincing fashion, and lifted the Coppa. In terms of the game, not particularly aesthetic to the neutral, equal possession, and chances for either side, but it’s hard to argue against a Napoli win in conclusion. Gattuso had the right approach; one that offered an ever-growing sense of responsibility for the players to harbour a disciplined approach, not allowing their opposition to take a hold of the game at any point. Sarri will be disappointed by the lack of clear chances created, and the inability to swing the game in him favour from the 5 substitutes on offer.
Gattuso will go into the resumption of the league in the knowledge that his side can continue to get results against the best teams, but eager to improve their league position through results against every style of opposition. The midfield three today, plus Allan after his introduction, seem to be a key component in Napoli’s success, one that can work well together, with the trust put in Demme seeming very logical. The comparison between the deep midfield positions was interesting; Juve replacing Pjanic in the second half and Bentancur dropping back a bit, never looking convincing. Conversely, Napoli giving Demme one key role in front of the back four for the whole match, not seeming to change or weaken with the introduction of Allan, and demonstrating good cohesion between the three. Napoli fans will now be slightly more optimistic going into the end of this campaign, and the next. Sarri definitely has work to do to secure another domestic triumph, proven by this performance.
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Napoli 0-0 Juventus
(4-2 after pens)
Scored: Insigne, Politano, Maksimovic, Milik; Bonucci, Ramsey
Missed: Dybala, Danilo