There goes the dream. Pato claims the title of man of the match and king of the city, while the image of Walter Mazzarri’s dampened rage becomes the icon for a hundred thousand Partenopei supporters. The qualities of the two teams deserve a comparison.
Napoli deploy a more original formation than Milan’s aggressive 4-3-1-2. Mazzarri has sketched his team around a five-man defence with two free-roaming fullbacks in Andrea Dossena and Christian Maggio, meaning that their formation could just as well be called a 3-5-2 as a 5-3-2. Both teams make use of the golden triangle in the offence, rendering a discussion of their offensive patterns almost worthless, seen how these tend to emerge spontaneously and unpredictably. The absence of Lavezzi from the Napoli team may have been a decisive factor in their game on Monday. In any case, both teams demonstrate a highly organized cooperation of mediani and defenders ultimately liberating a trio of speedy forwards who can be left to their own devices.
The difference between them lies in the execution. They seem to embody two different faces of Italian football. Milan glue their identity around a core of enormously talented offensive players, unmatched in Italy and worthy of la Liga: Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho and Clarence Seedorf. Even discounting the age of the latter and the issues around Ronaldinho, one understands why Milan could afford to drop a player such as Marco Borriello for almost no price at all. A few years ago, when they sported a 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldinho, David Beckham, Pato and Ronaldo in the front, their formation was re-dubbed a ‘4-2-Fantasia,’ pre-empting the tactical shift towards improvisation (and away from organisation) which they are spearheading today.
Napoli, while playing with three forwards, have a different style, and this was exemplified on Monday. Mazzarri is from Livorno like Massimiliano Allegri, but he is from the province, and he may endorse a more provincial, conservative mentality (his typical reluctance to field youth, from Dessena to Cigarini, may be a case in point). The Southern team play with a cautious five defenders and rely on a very traditional poacher in Edison Cavani, one whose technical traits could have been compared to those of Schillaci twenty years ago. Not only they were the more defensive team against Milan (though this, as we have said, may have been conditioned by the absence of Lavezzi), they also seemed more rowdy and yet psychologically controlled. The match frequently reached boiling points of tension, but the players in blue appeared to be the ones in better control of themselves, almost as though they were at home in the chaotic atmosphere. Pato himself, prior to his goal-rampage, seemed one of the players most affected – his yellow card came from a senseless, spiteful foul on an unmoving player. Gennaro Gattuso seemed to be troubled as well.
By contrast the Napoli defenders put in a brilliant display in the first half. Andrea Dossena and Paolo Cannavaro did a wonderful job at holding the back-line together, and Morgan De Sanctis should get his DNA tested to make sure he isn’t half-cat! Napoli were the more defensive team, in the sense that they defended more effectively. Milan best represent fantasia at the moment, while Napoli are the best interpreters of furbizia. Their positions in the table reflect their ability in expressing these aspects of Italian football. Without entering into the polemics on whether the penalty was legitimate or not, it is a shame that a match which until then had been really quite balanced should have been unlocked – and ultimately decided – by such a trivial incident. If it had been allowed to unfold without this hiccup, it might have revealed a lot about what happens when these two opposing powers of football meet.