It was described as a “tactical masterpiece” by most of the Italian newspapers the next day, as Udinese clinically disposed of Napoli away from home to scupper their hopes of winning the league title, raising their own chances of finishing in the top four. Napoli have not lost at home since October and welcomed a decimated Udinese side many predicted would crumble due to the absences of both Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez. A third of the way into the match and another valuable Zebrette player, Mauricio Isla, was forced off the pitch due to injury. Yet Francesco’s Guidolin’s insatiable desire to outwit the opponent coupled with his studies on Napoli allowed his side to achieve an unlikely win to demonstrate the value of intelligent tactics.
Coming off two defeats, many critics had noted, after punching well above their weight, this Udinese side that scored for fun and played like a mini Barcelona side had reached their tether. Their play had slowed down, the back-line that had guarded the defence so well had now conceded three goals in a week and they were falling victim to the dreaded injury curse. Factoring in the loss of the dynamic duo, a defeat away to Napoli was almost expected especially if one looks at how important they both are to the team. As the most prolific Serie A partnership, they boast 38 goals between them.
However, no one counted on the Guidolin. On Sunday night, not only had tactics changed to asphyxiate the Napoli attack but the team looked inspired as they took on a more defensive approach to the game. In a ground known to be hostile, Udinese kept their shape and remained disciplined in a manner impressive to even the toughest of tyrants. Each player knew their role inside out and the team moved rhythmically, shutting down space and breaking up attacking moves just as they started whilst preparing to counter-attack at lightning speed should they be allowed possession. Such were the Zebrette’s understanding of their defined roles, not even the forced removal of Isla for Juan Cuadrado changed the balance of the game.
Aware of Napoli’s attacking threat via their offensive full-backs, Udinese guarded the flanks with determination, cutting off their contribution to the strikers and forcing them to move inwards. In the mean-time their pressing game made it impossible for the Azzurri midfielders to penetrate the well drilled Udinese defence. Such was their pressurising method of play a usually precise Napoli side were rendered ineffective as out of their 17 shots on goal, only three were on target.
Guidolin realised Walter Mazzarri’s side would be desperate to grab a goal. As such the longer Udinese muzzled their opponents, the greater the chance their dogged determination to score would inevitably create holes at the back for the away side to exploit. Furthermore, their inability to penetrate the solid Udinese defence would then eat away at their confidence levels making it difficult for them to convert opportunities. It was no surprise then the Zebrette capitalised on the defensive gaps to snatch two goals whilst Edison Cavani squandered the chance to score from a penalty.
Whilst Guidolin may be a tactical genius, even rendering Mazzarri’s substitutions as useless, it may be his human touch and psychological edge that allowed him to encourage his side to register a difficult win after two demoralising defeats. Guidolin insisted he wanted to see his lads “show an appetite for victory” and not even the loss of three pivotal members of the squad affected their capability to win. Whilst papers continue to link Italy’s biggest clubs with the likes of Andre Villas Boas, they should perhaps have a look at the man working wonders with a side facing relegation only last year.