Tactical Analysis: Milan @ Napoli Serie A 2-4 08/27/2016 Sarri’s substitution masks Montella’s innovative tactics

This is an interesting game because both teams field a 4-3-2-1 formations with contrasting characteristics that harbor very similar weakness. Sarri’s timely substitution took advantage of Milan’s mistake and the game was over after Kucka’s dismissal.

Napoli has their usual 4-3-2-1 with Mertens replacing Insigne and uses Milik as the lone striker. Milan also fielded a 4-2-3-1, with De Sciglio replacing Antonelli.

Sarri vs Montella: Compactness vs Width and Length

Napoli’s compactness in build-up

Napoli attacks mainly through penetration with short and quick passes. A key to such tactics is the availability of lots of passing options and close distance between players:

optionsHere Allan had 4 passing options in a relative small area. This is key to Napoli’s offense. And you will often see from their games that there are lots of quick one-two passes.

Napoli mainly penetrate through the both flanks. With two “units”right triangleleft triangle

Hamsik-Ghoulam-Mertens form the left-side unit while Allan-Hysaj-Callejon form the right hand side unit. They often move in a way to maintain a triangle shape relative to each other. This serves to constantly maintain two passing options for ball handlers. They have so much synchrony with each other that it is their most powerful weapon in penetrating opponents.

Napoli has to commit many players in their attacking side to maintain lots of passing options for their ball handlers. To maintain compactness of their shape, they often maintain a three-men back lines:3@thebackYou can see from the above how both center backs shift to the left where their team is attacking. You should also notice how Hysaj positions himself along with the center backs. When attack through the left is not successful, Napoli would often send the ball to Jorginho or their center backs and to circulate to Hysaj. In their games you will always see how Hysaj and Ghoulam move relative to each other, where one would move forward and the other would move back and vice versa. The trigger of that movement is their ball circulation.

Milan’s width and length in build-up

Montella’s tactical philosophy in this Milan team is completely opposite to Sarri’s Napoli. It focuses on width and long passes and is attacking-minded. On the outside it looks reckless and simplistic, but it is actually articulately designed, not less tactically brilliant than Sarri’s Napoli. In my opinion, it is actually a lot more difficult to implement such tactics successfully. Milan really shows very good progress at this stage.

Although Milan fields a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation, they actually implement a 2-3-5 formation in their offensive phase, with two full-backs (Abate / De Sciglio) pushing all the way to the opposition half and occupy the wing position, joining the three attackers. Sometimes Bonaventura replaces De Sciglio in attack, where he is more potent in offense.


Montella wants to achieve two things here. 1, with both full backs constantly occupying the wing positions, it increases the width of Milan’s attack:milan width#1-1milan width#1-2One play you often see in Milan’s offensive phase is either Bonaventura or Montolivo will cross-field pass to Abate. The four men defense of Napoli struggles to cope with the 5 Milan’s attackers (with Abate and De Sciglio joining Bacca, Niang and Suso). This stretches the Napoli’s defense.

But more importantly, Montella instructs his team to play a very unconventional tactic in this 2-3-5 / inverted pyramid formation. The three midfielders stay very close with the two center backs. This often increases the distance between the 5 attackers and the midfielders. Modern football tactics emphasize staying compact. However, what is so genius about this Montella’s tactic is the way it isolates the Napoli’s midfield and exposes their defense. milan 5 attackers#1You can see how far it is between the Milan’s midfield and the 5 attackers. The only players occupy the space between them are the Napoli 3 midfielders and 2 inverted wingers. They are “isolated” in a sense that they can’t do anythings because they are too far away. They can’t press the ball handlers nor cover the space between the lines. In this way, Montella gets rid of five players from Napoli’s defense. This is really a genius move.

Both teams have similar weakness

Both Napoli and Milan explore the between line space (between midfield and defense line) and both teams have problems defending those spaces.

With their stretched 2-3-5, Milan often explores the space behind Napoli’s midfield. Napoli often counters with Koulibaly pressing the ball receiver. milan attack between line#1-1.jpgmilan attack between line#1-2.jpgAnother example:milan attack between line#2-1.jpgThe problem is that Koulibaly has to cover a long distance in order to press the ball receivers, in both examples being Suso. In case when he failed, this leaves their defense very exposed with 3 defenders covering 4 Milan’s attackers. This is exactly how Napoli conceded the two goals in this game.

For Napoli, their lone striker Milik is the key for them to generate space for the inverted wingers (Mertens/Callejon). napoli attacks between line space#1-1.jpgnapoli attacks between line space#1-2.jpgnapoli attacks between line space#1-3.jpgMilik often positions himself between Milan’s defenders. In this case he positions and run in between Gomez and Romagnoli and both defenders follow him. At the same time, Callejon runs back to the space between line. With Hysaj racing toward the by-line, De Sciglio has to a dilemma in choosing to press Hysaj or Callejon. With Hysaj being potential more dangerous in the at the by-line, De Sciglio (and Bonaventura) has to follow him and leaves Callejon open. napoli attacks between line space#2-1.jpgnapoli attacks between line space#2-2.jpgAgain, Milik attracted both Gomez and Romagnoli. Mertens drops back and receives the pass in this space between line. He uses his trickery to get pass Abate and fired a shot that Donnarumma barely tips over the bar.

The goals

Napoli’s first goal comes from a mistake from Milan’s defense. For 4-5 seconds Gomez completely ignores Mertens. napoli#1 goal#1-1.pngnapoli#1 goal#1-2.png

Napoli’s second goal comes from a corner. But the corner is the result of a typical Napoli’s play in the space between line delivered from the flank.napoli second goal#1-1.pngnapoli second goal#1-2.pngnapoli second goal#1-3.pngWith Milik again occupying the Milan’s defenders, Mertens has all the time and space to fire a dangerous shot (that leads to the corner) upon receiving the ball.

Both Milan’s goals come from their usual plays we discussed before, with that stretched 2-3-5 formation, Koulibaly is forced to press Suso/Niang. Both occasions Suso/Niang gets past Koulibaly and exposes Napoli’s defense. milan1stgoal#1-1.pngmilan1stgoal#1-2.pngHere Suso escapes Koulibaly, passes to Niang and he forces past Hysaj and scores.

milan2ndgaol#1-1.pngmilan2ndgaol#1-2.pngmilan2ndgaol#1-3.pngmilan2ndgaol#1-4.pngNiang passes the ball to Suso before Koulibaly arrives. Eventually Suso scores that stunner right outside of the box.

Being so far stretched, Milan often runs risks in exposing their defense if they lost the ball. Napoli only capitalizes this opportunity until Zelinski replaces Allan. This is because neither Jorginho, Hamsik or Allan usually runs directly to the defenders with the ball. This often delays their counter-attack. When losing the ball upfront in their 2-3-5 formation, Milan often counter-press, which is something you would see more often in their last game. But in Napoli’s third goal:napoli3rdgoal#1-1.pngnapoli3rdgoal#1-2.pngMilan made a mistake here, while Bonaventura was aggressively pressing Albidol, none other Milan’s players follow suit. This allows Albidol to break the five Milan’s players with a simple press to Zelinski. napoli3rdgoal#1-3.pngnapoli3rdgoal#1-4.pngnapoli3rdgoal#1-5.pngZelinski has the speed and skill to penetrate Milan’s half. This is not possible with Allan, Jorginho or Hamsik. In the end Mertens’s trickery allow him to fire a shot which eventually leads to their goal.

The game is basically over right after this goal, with Kucka picking up two yellow cards and got dismissed. Milan did not have enough in their tank to force an equalizer with 10 (everually 9) players on the field using their risky tactics.


Genius tactics by Montella. You just saw him playing an inverted pyramid 2-3-5 that focuses on long ball!!!And they generate space by intentionally separating their attackers from their midfield!!!!! Reckless? Yes. But it is calculated risk. Milan often counter-press when losing the ball upfront in their 2-3-5. You see a lot more of this in their game against Torino. Napoli being not very good at counter-attack now, Milan did not need to worry about this so much.

Milan did not lose 4 goals here because Montella’s team is taking a risky approach. They lost 4 goals because their defenders (both Gomez and Abate) are bad. They did not lose 4 goals because they play 5 attackers. They lost 4 goals because their midfielders cannot protect the defense. With minimal upgrades of their roster this summer, this is inevitable. But at least they have an innovative coach and they play interesting football. Milan fans should be optimistic.

For Napoli, they may win the game but this is bad. Their defenses have been terrible so far. Their midfield, like Milan, cannot protect their defense. Both of their full-backs are error prone in defense. This is not an attitude problem like Sarri suggested, but a systematic issue of their tactics. Neither Jorginho nor Hamsik provide enough protection to the two center backs. They should be worried if they are to contest the Serie A crown.

For man-of-the-match, I will choose Mertens. The first three goals are the direct / indirect result of his movements and shots.

Random thing:

  1. Montolivo might not be physically capable to protect the defense, but boy is his passing impressive. Same goes for Bonaventura. Napolis’s midfielders pass very well too. ButI am so impressed by this Milan comparing to their last season.
  2. Suso is an amazing player. He is gonna be special. Same as Niang, such a mature performance (until the dismissal…)
  3. Milik is an intelligent player. But he can’t replace Higuain. You can see how Napoli miss Higuain with his ability to bring other teammates to attack. You see that because Napoli is not potent in counter attack anymore.
  4. De Sciglio, Romagnoli and Koulibaly are really good defenders in very bad defense teams.
  5. Inter-Palermo game next!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s