Abhijit Bharali writes a detailed tactical analysis about Napoli’s win against Inter in their recent Serie A match.
Napoli went atop the Serie A standings for the first time since April 1990, with a win over Inter Milan decided by the narrowest of margins and some Gonzalo Higuain striking brilliance. Higuain’s brace took his goals tally to 12 this season, and only a fine save from goalkeeper Pepe Reina denied Inter a share of the points. Roberto Mancini’s Nerazzurri played the entire second half with ten men, but it was a case of too little too late for Inter, who lived to rue their defensive mistakes on the night.
Maurizio Sarri underplayed Napoli’s Scudetto talks after the game, stating: “With 31 [points ]we’re not even safe yet,” and his approach to the game barely had the hint of safety as the Partenopei lined up with their strongest possible eleven, which had played proactive, entertaining football throughout the season. Napoli lined up in their now-template 4–3–3 with Higuain up top supported by crowd favourite Lorenzo Insigne and the functional Jose Callejon. Insigne, expectedly, played in a more advanced role on the left compared to Callejon on the right, whose defensive work rate allowed Allan to make forward runs in between Inter’s midfield and back lines from his starting position on the right half space.
NAPOLI 2-1 INTER MILAN
Napoli: 25. Reina; 2. Hysaj, 33. Albiol, 26. Koulibaly, 31. Ghoulam; 5. Allan, 8. Jorginho, 17. Hamsik (Lopez, 79′); 7. Callejon (Maggio, 86′), 9. Higuain, 24. Insigne (El Kaddouri, 69′).
Inter: 1. Handanovic; 33. D’Ambrosio, 25. Miranda, 24. Murrilo, 55. Nagatomo; 13. Guarin Biabiany, 61′); 17. Medel, 77. Brozovic; 44. Perisic (Jovetic, 82′), 9. Icardi (Telles, 45′); 22. Ljajic.
Jorginho, who recorded 218 touches in Napoli’s last game against Hellas Verona, played as the deepest midfielder although he found himself operating mostly in Inter’s half owing to the away side’s tendencies of sitting and allowing Napoli to control play. Captain Marek Hamsik started along the left half space but drifted into the wings, as Napoli attacked mostly through the left flank with Insigne’s variable movements and left-back Faouzi Ghoulam’s deep runs. Ghoulam was more advanced in his positioning than right back Elseid Hysaj, and played a major role in Napoli’s left sided attacks, which contributed to 45 percent of their total attacks on the night. Kalidou Koulibaly was the free centreback with Raul Albiol keeping Inter’s lone striker Mauro Icardi at close watch. Inter’s lack of bodies up front allowed plenty space for Koulibaly, and the Senegalese nipped the ball off Inter players in the middle third on quite a few occasions.
Mancini set his team up in a somewhat reactive 4–3–3, which morphed into a defensive and deep 4–5–1 in off the ball phases. Icardi had little support up front and consequently had to drop deep into midfield to link up with his team-mates. The Argentine had a flat night, and was hauled off at the break as Inter made a defensive reshuffle following left-back Yuto Nagatomo’s dismissal.
Gary Medel was deployed as Inter’s destroyer while Marcelo Brozovic and Fredy Guarin were the midfield shuttlers ahead of Medel. Brozovic, in particular, was full of running and got himself involved in a box to box role while Guarin was less dynamic and saw less of the ball. Ivan Perisic and Adem Ljajic played on Icardi’s sides, but they combined in the second half well, down the Napoli right.
Jeison Murillo’s mistake in the first minute contributed to Higuain’s opener; the Colombian partnered Miranda in the centre of Inter’s defence; they were flanked by the two fullbacks Nagatomo and Danilo D’Ambrosio. Samir Handanovic and Pepe Reina were the last lines of defence for Inter and Napoli respectively.
Contrasting build-up from both sides meant one team settled into the game seamlessly while the other struggled for identity. Napoli’s early lead allowed them to impose their quick passing game on Inter; they settled quickly as Inter toiled in the initial stages. The Nerazzurri set-up isolated Icardi up front as their passive approach allowed Napoli to dictate the early proceedings.
Brozovic pressed the Napoli midfield in patches but had little in the way of support and consequently retreated with the five-man Inter midfield block. The block wasn’t at all compact; it combined slow progression during possession phases, often found itself wanting for solutions to bypass the Napoli midfield and even slower regrouping in defensive transitions, leading to holes between the lines for Napoli to exploit.
Napoli, on the other hand, were quick in transitions and circulated the ball swiftly which often opened up Inter’s fiveman midfield shape through wide areas. Napoli also bypassed the Inter bodies via triangles, and the movement of Napoli players was key to their approach. Ghoulam played the whole night inside the Inter half, Insigne dropped short and hugged the touchlines, and Koulibaly ventured into midfield as he was subjected to no pressure from the Inter forwards.
Napoli combined fluid movements with quick combinations and passing triangles, but often sought the wrong final ball or were wasteful in finishing. Inter grew into the game defensively as both Murillo and Miranda had some measure of Higuain as the first half progressed, but their attacking phases failed to develop due to the directness and lack of build-up.
Handanovic rarely passed the ball short from goal kicks owing to Napoli’s high pressure which resulted from Inter allowing them to hold a high line by sitting in a low-medium block, and this did not help Inter’s cause. In the other goal, Reina was starting Napoli attacks by regularly seeking nearby team-mates with short passes. This was a key difference in both teams’ approach to the game.
Napoli’s Left-Sided Combinations
One key aspect of Napoli in their 4–3–3 shape is the prominence of left-sided attacks. There is a lopsided look about Napoli with the more attack-minded Ghoulam and Hamsik combining with the effervescent Insigne on the lefthand side compared to the more functional and selfless trio of Allan, Hysaj and Callejon on the right.
Their statistics in the season thus far show 39 percent of all their attacks have come through the left flank, a fact which clearly shows where their strength lies. As expected, the trio of Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne combined 70 times against Inter, and the 29 combinations between Hamsik and Insigne were the most in the game, aside from, of course, the combinations in the base of defence and midfield involving the ball hungry Jorginho and the two centre-backs.
Another aspect of Napoli’s play was their cornering of Inter players in wide areas to prevent them from building through the sides. As if Napoli’s central pressure wasn’t enough, they went about preventing Inter from playing altogether. Although their intensity tailed off gradually, but it was an effective tactic nonetheless.
The tactic forced Inter to ping long balls which played into Napoli’s hands as the Inter forwards were barely in advanced areas of the pitch. The Inter players with the ball in wide areas were either forced into a backward pass or an ineffective square ball which was of little immediate threat to the Partenopei.
Nagatomo’s red card just before half-time forced Mancini to bring on Alex Telles in place of Icardi in the second half. That change meant Ljajic was now playing as the main striker with Perisic playing off the Serb. Inter’s attacks were oriented towards their left-hand side in the second half, and Brozovic’s energy meant the Croatian motored up and down through the right half space.
It was still Napoli who dominated with their man advantage in the second half, but Inter took calculated risks to get themselves back into the game. One such calculated risk was attacking through the left while keeping their right side well stacked in personnel owing to the greater threat Napoli carried on that side.
Medel and Brozovic had more pressing actions in the second half than Guarin, which perhaps was the reason why Inter brought on Jonathan Biabiany for the Colombian. But Inter had barely effected the change when Higuain struck again to pull the game away from the visitors. Another instance of Mancini’s plan thrown out of the window by Higuain, just like the first minute goal.
Napoli failed to maintain their pressing tempo and dynamic as the game wore on, and Inter showed remarkable energy levels to stay in the game till the final whistle. Stevan Jovetic replacing Perisic late on provided Inter a focal point in their attack, as the tired Napoli legs barely managed to cross the finish line.
The Partenopei started losing possession more often and their passing game lacked the verve of the opening hour. The substitutions of Insigne and Hamsik took away Napoli’s edge in possession; they lost direction in the closing stages as Inter grew into the game.
Napoli played an hour of high-intensity football, dominating a passive Inter side intent on keeping things tight. However, Inter’s initial plan quickly went out of the window after their early goal concession, but they slowly clawed back into the game and almost scored a last-gasp equaliser as Napoli tired towards the end.
Written by Abhijit Bharali.
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