Maurizio Sarri is the most creative trainer among active Italian coaches. His Napoli side has played the most attractive and dominant offensive game in Serie A for the last three years. They had the hope to dethrone Juventus at the start of the season and have acquired impressive results until a month ago. They dropped seven points in the last five Serie A games and crashed out of the Champions League. Their drop of form coincided with the loss of Faouzi Ghoulam: Napoli created 14.9 shots / normalized possession each game this season (4th in Serie A) but only generated 12.2 shots in the last five games without him (an 18% decrease). Injury, fatigue, and tactics have contributed to their drop in performance. Here I dissect on how the opponent’s defensive strategy evolved to contain Napoli’s offensive power.
I wrote about Napoli’s offensive tactics four months ago. To summarize, Napoli used very quick short passes and positional exchanges to progress the ball, confuse the opponents and distort their defensive structure. Dribbles and aerial threat are minimal components of their games.
In recent games, many teams hold a very high press against Napoli to prevent it from building up from the back. They don’t use these presses to pressure Napoli’s ball handler to force errors or retrieve the ball in Napoli’s half. Instead, these teams aim to eliminate Napoli’s passing game during buildup. In some cases, they tightly mark every Napoli’s players except goalkeeper Pepe Reina so that his only option is to send a high and long ball forward. In other cases, they work hard to prevent Jorginho from participating in the build-up, forcing other Napoli players to force a long ball forward.
Without Arkadiusz Milik, Napoli does not have a striker with any aerial threat: Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and Jose Callejon only averages 1.7m tall. They collectively won 1 header per game (out of 2.7 attempts, 37%). For comparison, the median number of header won by a Serie A forward is 0.8 per game (out of 1.2 attempts, 67%, by Fabio Borini of Milan). When Reina is forced to use the long and high passes to bypass the opponent’s high press, Napoli rarely wins the resulting headers.
Some people have suggested that defenders have an advantage when defending on the flank because there is available space compared to the central region. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid is an example of such tactic. Many Italian teams play an opposite tactic, where they prevent their opponents to progress the ball on the flank. The idea behind this tactic is to minimize the defenders to shift between the two flanks. In this way, the defensive structure is stable and not prone to the formation of the gap. Many Serie A sides prefer this tactic because most of them play with a rigorous zonal marking system that focuses on solid defensive shape. Juventus has found a lot of success to defend against Napoli with this tactic:
Not only was Udinese able to maintain a stable structure in the defensive phase, but they also slowed down Napoli’s passing game and ball progression. Udinese would force Napoli’s center backs to send the ball to the full-backs. When the ball reached Elseid Hysaj or Christian Maggio, Udinese’s players would try to close down their vertical passing lanes immediately. Hysaj and Maggio would have to stop and find their teammates in the center. Therefore, the ball is taking longer to move vertically. This strategy has an adverse magnifying effect on the Napoli’s attack: because the ball movement is slow, the defenders have time to read and react to the ball and players’ movement. They are more capable of maintaining a stable defensive shape. Napoli’s players have a harder time to find meaningful passing lanes. The ball handler keeps the ball longer, further slowing their attack. It becomes a cycle that halts Napoli’s momentum.
The above tactics are used to deal with Napoli’s initial buildup from the back. When these tactics don’t work, teams used different strategies to contain Napoli. A common theme that has emerged in the last few weeks is that Napoli’s opponents often jam the center of the pitch to minimize Napoli’s vertical passing lanes in this area:
There are several considerations when the teams deploy such tactics against Napoli. First, to jam the center, the defending team needs to maintain a very narrow and compact shape. This arrangement leads to less coverage on the flanks. For example, when playing at San Paolo, Juventus did not prioritize defending against Napoli’s full-backs when they were outside of the penalty area. Juventus’ players were usually late to mark Hydsaj and Mario Rui. Because there were always 6/7 Juventus defenders in the middle, Rui or Hysaj had no choice but to cross the ball directly into the box. Napoli had 41 crosses in that game, but they only average 18 crosses per game this season (6th fewest in the league). Allegri knew that this approach was relatively risk-free because of Napoli’s disadvantage in the aerial ability up front.
Secondly, the defending teams adhere to a strict zonal marking scheme and are not man-orientated. The defenders often backed off from Marek Hamsik, Jorginho, and co. when they had the ball near the half-line.
Because the defending players focus on maintaining a fixed structure in the center than tackling the ball handlers, Napoli’s players often receive the ball and face multiple defenders in front of them. The movement of the ball cannot trigger the movement of the defense, there are fewer gaps for Napoli players to operate. Although they have a lot of time and freedom to survey the landscape, there are very few viable vertical passing lanes through this region. The freedom and time that Hamsik/Jorginho enjoys are detrimental to Napoli’s offense because the ball often stops and Napoli becomes very slow in the offensive phase. Napoli’s ball handlers often face a solid block of players backing off from them. If they want to advance the ball they would need to use long passes with low success rate. Teams can bypass this kind of central block with long overhead passes. But it won’t work for Napoli without Milik.
Juventus carried out one of the most successful defenses against Napoli. Massimiliano Allegri’s men had a clear preference to maintain the zone when they deal with not only the ball but also player’s movement.
The positional exchange between the left full-back and Insigne is critical for Napoli to attack the left flank. It is clear from the above clip that Mattia De Sciglio had no intention to follow a particular player. He only concerned about defending his zone. Again, this kind of zonal preference prevents Napoli from distorting the defense, halting the ball movement and rendering the attack less effective.
For three years Sarri’s men have played a brand of football that is entertaining, dominant and demoralizing to the opponents. Only recently, some Serie A managers have found a way to contain them based on detailed scouting and failed experiments. Napoli’s fatigue and injury also help their opponents’ to find this success. It will be interesting to see how Sarri will respond to this mini-crisis.