Napoli’s 5-1 win over Juventus was magical. As Victor Osimhen ran the Bianconeri ragged, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia stretched the Old Lady defence and Stanislav Lobotka played through them, Max Allegri’s eight-game unbeaten side were left reeling every time Luciano Spalletti’s side came forward and turned their defence way too easily.
Even though Napoli are now ten points clear at the top of the Serie A, the result’s relevance goes far beyond the league table. It is, in many ways, emblematic of the winds of change in Calcio. A sign that momentum is shifting and that eras are ending in the game.
For years, Napoli have been known to be the perennial ‘chokers’. There have been numerous instances over the last decade and a half where the Partenopei have been at the top of the Serie A table, igniting hope of success and the nostalgia of the Maradona days that provided Naples an identity to cling onto. But it was never enough, as the side faded – as they famously did last season and as they succumbed to Juve themselves under Maurizio Sarri in 2018. Romance has always been appended to their successes but it has always been short-lived.
Juve, meanwhile, had not conceded a goal since early October, when they had lost to Milan. They were on a run which, for some, was suggestive of their comeback into the Scudetto debate. History and narratives have shown that these are the times of the season when Juve truly pounce and come alive. Max Allegri, to many, is the master of the longer runs. And Juve, known as the ‘winners’ in Serie A for so long, have been associated with the pragmatic name tag too.
There have been occasions in the previous decade or so when other sides have been leading the Scudetto race or have been close to going past the Old Lady. But that is when Juve have won, increasing the gap and showing that they remain supreme. But today, it wasn’t to be.
And Napoli once again, showed what a revolutionary side they are in Italian football. They are not bound by positional play. They never stick to discrete positions that Luciano Spalletti may instruct them to operate in. They operate differently and use a host of spaces around them and move at will. Instead of seeing space as a primary reference, players see each other and the ball as a primary reference to operate around.
It isn’t rare to see Victor Osimhen operate in all sorts of spaces around the final third. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is freely operating around the left side and full-backs Mario Rui and Giovanni di Lorenzo invert or stay wide depending on the positioning of the wide players or the midfielders. The primary reference point for the side is the teammates and the positioning of the ball, not the space. That, in essence, is the opposite to what Italian football has been taught for ages through Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary principles. It is fresh for Italy and in a way, for European football too because of how entrenched it is in positional play.
And Napoli’s successes and their win over Juventus isn’t just massive for the league table. To the cultural, historical and tactical contexts, it is something Italian football is completely new to.
Kaustubh Pandey | GIFN