For Juventus, a draw last Sunday was a decent result. Against the best attacking side in the league, the defending champions had to dig deep to hold on to a valuable draw, which sees their lead at the top cut to 6 points. The decrease in their point advantage over Roma is disappointing, but Luciano Spalletti’s side have some difficult fixtures left on their schedule, while Juve arguably just got their toughest challenge out the way.
Juventus still have to travel to Rome to take on their title rivals, and that means Roma need to make up just 3 more points to ensure their championship fate rests solely on them for the remainder of the season. That’s a scary possibility, especially when the Bianconeri had seemed so comfortable at the top of the table. Even when the poor performance at Udinese ended in a 1-1 draw early last month, Roma’s loss the previous night to Napoli had seen Juve increase their lead slightly. It may have just been a point but they still managed to stretch the gap between first and second. This time around though, the deficit was cut.
When Sami Khedira put Juve in front at the San Paolo Stadium, we all knew what was coming next. Max Allegri done what Max Allegri does so often; he tried to protect a slender lead. Shutting up shop against such an attacking force for 83 minutes is brave, and if it pays off all well and good, but Napoli scored 68 goals in the league prior to Sunday night, adding their 69th later on in the second half. It was a risk from Allegri to assume that they wouldn’t score at some point, and one that didn’t come off. In fact by the end of the match, Juve were more than happy to have come away with a point, such was Napoli’s dominance.
As soon as Khedira scored, Juve ceded possession to Napoli. They forced them to break them down if they wanted to take anything from the game. Instead of allowing the likes of Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigned to catch them on the counter attack, Allegri opted to make the opposition work hard for an equalizer. Napoli controlled play with 60% possession and 17 attempts, while Juve had just three shots on goal in the aftermath of Khedira’s goal and zero of them hit the target. Allegri knew he was handing control of Napoli’s destiny over to them, and trusted his players to soak up the pressure, perhaps even hoping they would add to the scoreline via quick break or a set-piece.
With their late returns from international duty, Juan Cuadrado and Daniel Alves were put on the bench. As was Paulo Dybala, still not fully fit following the injury he picked up at Sampdoria and Kwadwo Asamoah was chosen ahead of the more pacier, offensive minded Alex Sandro. Mario Lemina started on the right wing, while Miralem Pjanic played in front of Claudio Marchisio and Khedira. Chances are, Allegri didn’t even plan on scoring with the way he set his team up. The early goal from his German midfielder was just a bonus, giving his side something to protect.
Looking at Lemina’s heatmap from whoscored.com, he was never given a particular position to play. His more natural position of central midfielder seen him push in at times, making Napoli play it wide and having to cross into a target man that wasn’t there. They had 22 crosses, with Allegri expecting Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to rid of any danger. The problem was when Napoli got the ball on the ground, they were unplayable. Their front three switched around, causing problems for Juve’s defence, while Marek Hamsik was uncovered most of the time he made his run from midfield, eventually sticking the ball in the back of the net.
Before Napoli did level, Allegri’s system and shape was working. Napoli were getting frustrated, and even had a goal disallowed for offside before they equalised. They created chances but the dark blue wall in front of them was looking like it would never break. The home side may have the best attack in the league but Juve have the best defence and it showed in Naples.
However, defending like they were forced to do for the majority of the game requires focus and assistance from teammates, two traits which are usually accustomed to Juve’s backline but which were absent for Hamsik’s goal.
Three Juve players (Bonucci, Marchisio and Lemina) surround Hamsik as he lays it off to Mertens. It’s an overcommitting on the individual but at least he’s being marked, and his planned run into the box seems to be dealt with. The problem is after Hamsik makes that run, Bonucci goes to cover the pass instead of the player, while Lemina and Marchisio just watch as he strolls into the box. Hamsik curls the ball into the top corner and it’s 1-1. Against talented and skilful offensive players, that lapse in concentration will always be punished.
The biggest concern for Juve’s faithful is whether or not this was a preview of the Barcelona tie that’s around the corner. Will Allegri simply allow Barca to control the play, constantly putting pressure on Juve’s defence while hoping for a counter attack goal? It’s a dangerous tactic, and one which didn’t exactly pay off last Sunday. Napoli have a similar offense to Barca with their front three always running around, switching positions to stretch the opposition, while their aerial attack isn’t as effective.
It remains to be seen what Allegri decides to do or what his intentions are for those two fixtures against Barcelona but as for the Napoli encounter, the 49-year-old set up to not lose against Napoli and he'll feel his decision was justified by the result.