Napoli and Milan played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at the Stadio San Paolo in a match where the tactical aspects of both teams were on display.
The Partenopei, playing at home and high on confidence after a recent upturn in results, were not about to just let an in-form Rossoneri come into their home and dictate the play, no matter how much their manager Rino Gattuso had connections with the Lombard team. They pressed, harried and created chances that had Gigio Donnarumma being forced into save after save.
Significantly, the attacks were coming down the right side of Milan’s defence as Andrea Conti was having another shocker at right-back, and it’s no wonder the club are linked with a number of full-backs. Somewhere Donnarumma’s agent Mino Raiola must have been smiling seeing his client’s value increase by the minute with showdown talks with the hierarchy at the club scheduled soon. Milan really can’t afford to let this generational talent go.
While the youth product kept the scores level, il Diavolo took the lead completely against the run of play. Ante Rebic was once again involved and his growing influence in the team was evident yet again. It was not just that he made a forward run into space, but, like a man brimming with confidence and knowing exactly where on the pitch he could hurt the opposition, he pointed to where he required the ball to be played. Ismael Bennacer promptly obliged and the Croatian’s turn and cross was finished off by Theo Hernandez.
Quick forward passing, skilful play and vision inside the penalty area and the chance being taken, it has become a staple of this Milan under Pioli since the re-start.
The away side noticeably dropped at least 10 yards deeper after taking the lead, which would be to their detriment. They conceded the equaliser from a free-kick as their longstanding inability to deal with defending from set-plays came back at them.
Lorenzo Insigne, who has found a new lease of life recently and came out and said recently that the munity the players created last November was a ‘mistake,’ whipped in the cross of a man in form. None of Milan’s players managed to clear and it was a tap in for right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo.
A goal for each side, both scored by full-backs. It highlights how modern players are expected to be all-rounders, with the ability to contribute on both ends of the pitch. The days of the one dimensional footballer are long-gone.
Stefano Pioli clearly drove home to his team to not be overawed by playing an in-form Napoli. He obviously encouraged his team to express themselves more as they came out after the interval and had the home side on the back foot. But yet again, a goal came against the run of play.
Theo was tucked in just a bit too much, which allowed Jose Callejon the freedom on the right to pick out the intelligent run of Dries Mertens and Napoli’s all-time top goal scorer made it 125. Having recently extended his contract till 2022, the Belgian will have put great distance ahead of the rest by time his career in Napoli is at its end.
One of the most significant ways Pioli has improved his team is in his in-game management and he showed his hand after Milan went behind. He immediately brought on Rafael Leao and Giacomo Bonaventura for the under-par Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hakan Calhanoglu.
It paid dividends as Bonaventura was fouled by Nikola Maksimovic soon after inside the box to give his team a spot kick. Napoli protested, VAR checked and Frank Kessie scored. For the second match in a row, the Ivorian made the game 2-2 and he is showing the form he displayed at Atalanta on a more consistent basis at Milan.
There was still 20 minutes to go in the encounter, but it was clear that Milan were happy to sit back and settle for a point while Napoli pushed for a late winner. The entire Rossoneri back four was in their own penalty area, the double pivot of Kessie and Bennacer were on the edge and even Leao was forced to make a tackle or two.
It is very rare that a Napoli manager had taken off both Insigne and Mertens in the same game, let alone at the same time, but that was exactly what Gattuso did. It was a move most likely brought by necessity rather than change in tactics, with the players having such an intense workload playing every three to four days. They aren’t machines, after all.
Their replacements, Arkadiusz Milik and Hirving Lozano, couldn’t affect the game much. Given the constant talk about his future, one must wonder if Milik’s head is still with the club, despite scoring the winner in Napoli’s Coppa Italia final victory over Juventus.
Milan’s backs-to-the-wall approach was made more difficult when Alexis Saelemaekers showed his inexperience by making two unnecessary fouls in quick succession and got himself sent off. But each Napoli attack was defended stoutly by Milan, and while they did get some possession, the pace of Leao could only take them so far. The fixture petered out, Milan happy enough with a point, Napoli probably feeling they deserved more.
Speaking post-match, Pioli mentioned ‘raising the bar’ while Gattuso bemoaned his side wasting scoring chances. Milan have stepped up, staying unbeaten against Roma, Lazio, Juve and Napoli but the Partenopei need to heed Gattuso’s words. They face Barcelona in less than a month, and have to take whatever chances they get.