Having finished in third place in Serie A last season, just five points behind champions Juventus, Napoli look primed and ready to win their first Serie A crown for almost 20 years, putting an end to Juve’s dominance.
Gli Azzurri have begun their campaign in exceptional fashion with eight wins out of eight in the league. In the process, they have conceded the joint fewest in Serie A (5) and scored the most (26) as they continue in the same vein that they ended last season. In 2016/17, Napoli scored 94 goals in the league: this despite selling their star striker Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus last season.
Manager Maurizio Sarri was appointed in 2015 to replace Rafael Benitez. Since then, he has been putting building blocks in place to ensure that Napoli were ready to take Italy by storm this season. Sarri is a tactically astute manager and many pundits consider Napoli to be playing the most attractive football in Serie A if not Europe itself.
Maurizio Sarri employs a 4-3-3 formation engineered to get the most out of a front three which comprises of Lorenzo Insigne as the left forward, Dries Mertens as a False 9, and Jose Callejon on the right. Behind them, a midfield three is usually made up of Jorginho, Allan and Marek Hamsik with impressive options in reserve with Amadou Diawara, Piotr Zielinski and Marcus Rog. The back four is made up of Elseid Hysaj on the right, Faouzi Goulham on the left, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol in central defence and Pepe Reina in goal.
When it comes to defending, Sarri employs a high and aggressive pressing system which is man-orientated. This means that they seek to close off passing options on the ball for their opposition, forcing them into mistakes or unsuccessful long passes rather than aiming to win the ball high up the pitch (as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool do). There are genetic similarities between this system and Mauricio Pochettino’s system at Tottenham Hotspur.
The Sarri press begins with the forward players. The front three will close off options on the ball, with the three central midfielders pushing up to squeeze the space in behind and further limit the opposition’s options on the ball. As a result, Napoli play a very high defensive line and aim to make the pitch compact in defence with Pepe Reina acting as the sweeper.
This comes with a risk: if Napoli allow space in between the lines of their defence or if they let forward players in behind their high line, they run the risk of conceding good chances without making the opposition work too hard.
If the press is unsuccessful, then, the tactical flexibility of Sarri’s system allows Napoli drop into a 4-1-4-1 set-up with Jorginho sitting deep in between the line of midfield and defence. This allows Napoli the capacity to mitigate the problems that can be caused from their aggressive press.
In attack, Sarri favours a vertical principle in his style of play. Napoli aim to move the ball forward aggressively and quickly. If the quick break isn’t on, they look to maintain possession and work the ball into dangerous areas through Marek Hamsik, their playmaker.
In these scenarios, Napoli look to build from the back. By encouraging the centre backs to pull wide, Jorginho is able to drop in between them as deep lying playmaker. Along with the Reina, this quartet are expected to be comfortable on the ball in order to progress the ball forward from the back.
With the centre backs in wider positions, full backs Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam can push higher up the field to provide outlet options on the flanks. This can see Napoli end up looking more like a 3-4-3 in formation with Hamsik and Allan aiming to find space in behind the opposition midfield whilst simultaneously preventing them from playing out from the back if the ball is turned over.
With the full backs pushing up the field, the two wide attackers Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon aim to cut inside and find space in between the lines in the half-spaces on the pitch. Both wing backs are attack-minded and help provide width to the forward players.
Going forward, Napoli split the pitch into five half spaces; wide left and wide right, inside left and inside right and central. In the course of their attacks, they look to fill players in each space but the focus of most of their attacks is on their left-hand side in particular where they can capitalise on the combined talents of Insigne and Dries Mertens.
Getting the players in these half spaces creates triangles that can be utilised when in possession which, in turn, opens up vertical passing options. This is an extremely demanding style of play and requires highly technical players who are also physically fit.
In order to play in the style that Maurizio Sarri has developed, Napoli have built up a wealth of technical players who are able to fulfill the tactical requirements of this approach. Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon make up a frightening front three, any of whom can catch opponents out with their movement and finishing ability.
Allan and Jorginho in midfield are both good in possession, picking up the ball, recycling it to their teammates and, when needed, passing the ball through the lines. Playing slightly ahead of them, Marek Hamsik is an effective attacking midfielder who aims to break forward and support the attack.
On the flanks, Hysaj and Ghoulam are both dependable defender but do their best work when attacking and providing the width. Where they can be caught out with their high back line, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol offer the perfect antidote. Koulibaly in particular is well-respected around Europe and is fundamental to Napoli’s often open style of play.
Napoli can struggle against sides who seek to counteract their aggressive approach and aim to press them on the ball, as has been shown in the Champions League defeat to Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk. However, with their build-up play and attacking cohesion so good, most teams simply cannot live with them.
Will they win the league?
As it stands, Napoli look like the only side who can realistically halt the Juve train. Many pundits think it unlikely the Napoli can balance the commitments of a Serie A title race and the Champions League. In fact, there are suggestions that Napoli will put the Champions League on the back-burner and focus on the legue itself: such is the importance of Serie A to the two-time winners.
There are other factors in play: Napoli are not used to the pressures of a title fight, unlike their opponents. It is yet unclear how they will cope with this pressure in the long run, with particular questions as to how the squad will cope with any injuries to key players.
That notwithstanding, this Napoli team certainly looks like the closest challengers to Juventus. If anyone can do it, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli can.
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