As Serie A drew to a close last season, fans of Italian football were treated to something of a rarity: a title challenge that went to the wire. Having beaten Juventus at the Allianz Stadium in Gameweek 34, Napoli found themselves one point off the top of the table with four games to go. In their next two games, though, they failed to beat Fiorentina and Torino, whimpering to a second-place finish five points behind I Bianconeri who picked up a seventh consecutive scudetto.
With the new season six games old, there is already a sense of déjà vu at the top table of Italian football. Juventus find themselves three points clear of Napoli at the top of Serie A as they head into their clash on Saturday. According to FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model, Juventus have a 63% chance of ending up at the top of Serie A come the end of the season, a figure that dwarves the 21% ascribed to their next closest challenger, Napoli. However the championship plays out this year, you can almost be certain that one of these two teams will be declared the winners by the time May swings around.
Yet whilst it may seem to be a case of ‘same old, same old’ in Italy this season, there are a number of factors which make this season’s matchup between these two powerhouses all the more intriguing. These come in the form of two arrivals: the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in Turin and the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti in Naples.
Ronaldo’s entrance — matched, as it was, by the departure of Gonzalo Higuain — gave Massimiliano Allegri a headache, at least nominally. Should he play the Portuguese forward as an out-and-out replacement for Higuain or should he slip him into the wide left berth that Ronaldo had favoured at Real Madrid?
Fortunately for Allegri, the problem was lessened somewhat by the fact the Juventus manager had tended to favour Mario Mandžukić on the left of an attacking unit despite his credentials as a front man. The question, then, seemed to be: who, of the two, should play as the striker?
In the opening game of the season against Chievo, the answer seemed to be: Cristiano Ronaldo. Juventus lined up in last season’s 4-2-3-1 with the Ballon d’Or holder spearheading the attack. After Juventus struggled — Chievo going 2-1 up before Federico Bernardeschi tapped in late on to give the Old Lady a barely-deserved win — Allegri has started to favour a 4-3-3 formation with the double pivot reduced to a single pivot and Ronaldo pushed out wide.
Looking at Ronaldo’s player map from Juventus’s opening Champions League game against Valencia, albeit for the 29 minutes he was on the pitch, you can see how his actions are all focused on the left-hand side of the pitch:
Compare this with Mandžukić’s player map from the Champions League last season:
After Ronaldo was sent off against Valencia, Mandžukić deputised for him over on the left. Allegri, however, remains uncertain of his best option to this forward conundrum. In the 2-0 win against Bologna on Wednesday night, he switched to a 3-5-2 formation with Cristiano Ronaldo pairing up with Paulo Dybala in the forward line. On Saturday, though, don’t be surprised to see Ronaldo returned to his position on the left with Mandžukić filling in as the lone striker.
As for Napoli, their incoming manager has been even less decisive than his counterpart at Juventus. Carlo Ancelotti is known for being something of a fixer, taking the raw ingredients of the squad available to him and developing a tactical approach that best suits them. This has seen him shift between a 4-3-3 formation early in the season and a 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 hybrid that has become more prominent in recent games.
The key player in this hybrid system is Lorenzo Insigne. Generally played as a wide forward under Maurizio Sarri, Ancelotti is now using Insigne as more of a number 10, dropping him deep between the lines to help out the midfield where needed. As a result, the formation shifts fairly easily between a 4-2-3-1 with Insigne playing as a 10 or a 4-2-2-2 with Insigne pushing up to help out Arkadiusz Milik or Dries Mertens in the forward position.
Twelve’s player maps indicate this tactical shift quite nicely. Here are Lorenzo Insigne’s actions from the Champions League last season where, as you can see, he clearly plays as a left forward:
During Napoli’s opening Champions League game against Crvena Zvezda, you can see that his position has shifted deeper and more centrally to the one he adopted last season.
Two teams expected to top the Italian first division quite comfortably and yet two teams whose respective managers still seem uncertain about how best to deploy their teams to get the best out of them. Saturday’s match-up will likely see both sides lining up in their strongest iterations which should give some indication of just how their managers intend to proceed going forward into the new season.