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Saiguhan Elancheran writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Serie A match that ended Milan 1-2 Napoli.
The game hosted two parties with similar ambitions as Vincenzo Montella’s Milan faced Mauricio Sarri’s Napoli. Napoli visited San Siro to face Milan in search of three points which would see them cut out the gap to a point between the leaders and them. Montella with his recently rejuvenated Milan side was expecting his side to gain all the three points after they scored two comeback goals at Torino to come away with a draw. Napoli started the game as the current longest unbeaten side in the league as they haven’t lost in the past 9 league games. After poor performances in the previous campaigns, Milan have come back stronger under their new manager and look to catch up with the likes of Napoli and Roma if not Juventus.
In the last 11 league meetings, Napoli have just lost once against the Rossoneri(W6 D4 L1) and the team from Milan have only won once in their last 5 Serie A home games against the same opponents in San Siro. Milan enter the game in contented form as they have taken only 5 league points from 12 in the last 4 games they have played else where Napoli are unbeaten in their last nine league games.
Milan(4-3-3): 99. Donarumma // 20. Abate – 15.Gustavo Gomez – 29.Paletta – 96.D.Calabria // 33.Kucka – 23.Sosa – 80.Pasalic // 8.Suso – 70.Bacca – 5.Bonaventura
Napoli(4-3-3): 25.Reina // 2.Hysaj – 62.Tonelli – 33.Albiol – 3.Strinic // 5.Allan – 8.Jorginho – 17.Hamsik // 7.Callejon – 14.Mertens – 24.Insigne
Milan: 73’ – Lapadula(Bacca), 74’ – Bertolacci(Sosa), 86’ – Niang(Pasalic)
Napoli: 61’ – Diawara(Jorginho), 74’ – Zielinski(Hamsik), 86’ – Rog(Allan)
As far as the teams are concerned the visiting manager made one change compared to the three changes made by Montella. Sarri brought in the Brazilian midfielder Allan for Zielinski while Kucka, Sosa and G.Gomez replaced Bertolacci, Locatelli and Romagnoli for the home side. As Locatelli will miss the game through cards accumulation, Romagnoli is suspended because of the red card collected in the last game. Milan will definitely miss their important player this season – Locatelli. As Montolivio is still sidelined, the centre of Milan’s defensive region looks vulnerable and it will couple the tensions in Montella’s camp as it has been the region from which Napoli have been scoring a lot lately. Talking about Napoli’s form, they have scored 21 goals in their last six league games which is after scoring just 9 goals in the previous 6 games and them scoring was one of the better tips someone could have given you.
Both the teams started the game in their much favoured 4-3-3. Montella has changed the style of Milan as he has put forth the theory of possession based approach play and has been successful in it so far in this Milan side. The game was expected to be an attacking match between the two sides as both fielded an attacking side.
Montella is a manager who likes to control the game with possession and that is exactly how he wanted his side to play against Napoli. Milan started well initially for the first 4-5 minutes and started to settle well in the game. They developed possession as 4 men defence saw its full backs joining the midfield and centre backs widening to allow the anchor in-between as the split back. This is the style of play Milan have accustomed to in this season and this helps them maintain play without losing the ball and have a control in the game with the ball. The below instance shows Sosa’s involvement in the defensive third as he collects the ball to pass it to the next line of play. This deployment was actually a high risk as Sosa hasn’t played much in the same position this season. Napoli were able to press Sosa and steal the ball in certain instances as Milan badly missed Locatelli on the day as he would’ve carried the ball better than his replacement.
Though Milan were the first team to settle, Napoli were the ones to create any telling chances in the game. Milan’s high line of defence when in possession came back to haunt them when they lost the ball. Their defence was badly exposed when Napoli started utilising long balls to get past the Milan defence and Napoli started to find great results using this tactic at breaks. Napoli mainly targeted the weak link involving Gustavo Gomez in the right half space as he is deputising the suspended Romagnoli and hasn’t been a regular this term. In the 3rd minute, when Milan lost the ball, Strinic played a long ball from his defensive half and Hamsik was easily able to outrun Gomez and collect the ball and play it on to Mertens who arrived in the centre. This was because of the highline adopted by Milan and they were easily exposed when Hamsik was able to outrun Gomez.
This is another instance in the 5th minute which led to the first goal. Milan were caught in Napoli’s pressing traps in their defensive third. Napoli were able to turn these opportunities into goal scoring chances by the penetrating runs of their forwards. In this instance, Milan were dispossessed and it was played into the path of Mertens from his defensive third. He was easily able to lose his marker to play a blind ball to the path of Insigne and this move was played in such a way that it can be identified as something that has come out of practice from the training ground. Insigne collected the ball in the opposite flank and netted it past Donnarumma in an emphatic fashion.
Napoli’s interchangeable front 3 caused problem for Milan’s makeshift defence as once again the counter attack couldn’t be handled. The second goal was scored by Callejon who arrived from Napoli’s right flank. In this instance Mertens dragged the unsettled Gomez out of his position with a diagonal run which opened up the space for Callejon to run into. Callejon collected the ball which was played by Mertens and slotted it past Gigi’s legs.
On the other hand, the high risk involved in Milan’s play was regularly exposed when Abate joined the attack whenever he was able to. He left a lot of space behind him which was easily occupied by Insigne or Hamsik when a counter or a break took place. Though Milan were effective at times in the attack when Abate joined upfront, it opened up huge spaces at the back which Napoli were effective at occupying. The below image shows the difference in positions taken up by Calabria on the left and Abate on the right. This huge difference supports the case why most of the Napoli attacks were from the right flank.
After scoring 2 goals Napoli preferred to sit back and hit Milan on the counter. But in certain situations when they had the ball, they aimed at playing out from the back by which they developed their first line of attack through recycling the possession. The image below shows Jorginho dropping deep to collect the ball and play it to the midfielders. This way of playing out from the back was somewhat similar to the strategy Milan employed. But unlike Milan, Napoli were clever to find their forwards through direct balls out from defence.
When in possession the average shape of Napoli almost looked like a 4-2-3-1 when Allan and Jorginho fell back and Hamsik joined further upfront along with Insigne and Callejon. Mertens has been provided a central role and headed the Napoli attack which had scored the 47th goal of the season. This allowed them to maintain stability with bodies at the back to defend and also provide players upfront for quick breaks. They defended in two banks of four when Milan were generating possession and circulating the ball.
When Napoli circulated the ball, Milan settled for a defensive 4-1-4-1 to control their attacks and regain possession.
Having leaked in two early goals Milan started settling in the game at the mark of 25 minutes. They started to circulate the ball well and maintained enough possession. They created triangles in order to develop the possession their manager craves for and by which he wants them to score goals. Forming triangles was one of the most powerful weapons used by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and there were shades of this model utilised by Milan under Montella.
Both the teams applied pressure from their first line of offense when the opponents had the ball and it can be said that both the teams fell to each other’s pressing traps. When the first 20 minutes showed Milan’s domination with the ball and Napoli’s success in counters as a result of these pressing traps, the next phase of the game saw Milan successfully pressing Napoli and even pushed them to play all the way to the goalkeeper at certain instances. Napoli to an extent lacked the quality of players to resist the press by Milan at the heart of the midfield. And one instance in the 37th minute proved the case when Kucka along with 2 Milan players pressed to steal the ball and score the goal.
The game grew to its best in the second half when both the teams started going for goals. The game developed itself from a possession vs counter attacking style of game into an end to end game when chances started to flow in for both the teams. The most telling chance came for Milan when Pasilic headed a cross from the wings into the goal which hit the post. On the day Milan played very well given their previous performances against Napoli. It can be stated that Milan were unlucky not to score another goal to take something away from the match as they did not deserve to lose but credits must be given to Napoli who stood firm till the final whistle to wrap up all the 3 points home. The result sends Milan to seventh place with 37 points from 20 games and kept Napoli within 4 points of Leaders Juventus as the latter won against Lazio in the next game.
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