Ryan Tank writes a comprehensive tactical analysis about the Champions League match that ended Manchester City 2-1 Napoli
Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Otamendi, Delph; Fernandinho; De Bruyne, Silva; Sterling, Jesus, Sane.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Diawara; Zielinski, Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.
Apart from Mendy, Pep was able to play his regular lineup and fielded a hybrid shape of 4-3-3/2-3-2-3/3-2-2-3 (MW) asymmetric in the 1st phase of their possession play. At times, with Fernandinho dropping into the back line and Silva into the 6 the shape adjusted slightly into a 3-3-1-3. The keys in the 1st phase of City’s build up were:
- The shape in the first two lines of their build up;
- The presence of Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in both half space at 8; and
- The high and wide positioning of both wide-forwards.
In the first two lines of build up, City established a 3-2/2-3 formation. In the first line was Walker, Stones, and Otamendi, though sometimes Walker was positioned slightly higher. In the higher sector, there were Fernandinho and Fabian Delph who had a hybrid role of 6 and left full back.
For Napoli, Dries Mertens looked to move around the center sector in their off possession phase. He was supported by either of the wide-forwards who moved inward to press City’s back line or Marek Hamsik who pressed City’s 6 as well as kept the pressing access to the opponent’s back line. Central midfielders, Zielinski and Diawara, stayed centrally and kept an eye on both of City’s advanced central midfielders.
In Napoli’s back line, there were Hysaj, Koulibaly, Albiol, and Ghoulam. In possession, Koulibaly looked to move slightly higher (and sometimes wider toward the flank) compared to Albiol, as the left center half operated in the left side, the side of where Napoli’s possession and progression were more heavily focused on. Koulibaly often acted as the one to progress the ball into the space between the lines, mainly to Hamsik or, altrnatively, Mertens who dropped deeper into the 10. Both full backs, and particularly Ghoulam, surged forward in the final third attack either to hug the line or tuck narrower into the half space to support the vertical play.
City’s solid possession vs Napoli’s high block press
The covering-action in Napoli’s pressing assignment often put Napoli in big trouble against City circulation and progression. Such a specific problem occurred when, for instance:
- City shifted the possession from the left to their right side;
- Mertens occupied the center 6; and
- Callejon stepped up to go for Otamendi (City’s left central defender).
When the ball was received by Fernandinho on City’s right side, Hamsik stepped up to press him. This became a problem because the Napoli midfield’s horizontal shifting was not intense enough to cover the vacated space by Hamsik (too much space for Diawara and Zielinski to cover as they had to shift from the right side to the left). It also allowed the half space for De Bruyne to receive any incoming vertical pass. Napoli’s ball side central defender seemed reluctant to leave his post because the back line had to also deal with City forward trio who kept them occupied. In short, there were a lot of spaces for City after they managed to bypass Napoli’s first line.
When discussing about City’s progression versus Napoli’s press, it would be unfair to go without mentioning how solid City’s possession was. It was City’s positional structure that gave the biggest contribution to their progression. City’s approach in build up was to play a flexible asymmetric shape, supported by double pivot that stayed at 6 and close to the first line to provide strong connection in order to transit the ball between the lines. With 5 players (deep 5) in their first two lines of build up, City overloaded the center. so, the advantage is clear, such positional structure means they stabilized the circulation from the very early stage of the attack and. at once, provided a strong defensive protection in case of loss of possession.
One of the best non-technical aspect of City’s build up was they were ridiculously calm against Napoli’s high block press. This, in turn, made it easy for the deep 5 to progress at their will.
As mentioned above, two of three keys of City’s solid possession were the shape in the first two lines of build up (deep 5 of 3-2/2-3 basic shape) and the presence of Silva in City’s left half space at 8. The deep 5 and the close distance within the lines often easily manipulated Napoli’s press. As explained above, the deep 5 was able to attract pressure into the center as well as create more space for the wide area and more space behind Napoli’s midfielder. When City’s first two line of possession were able do so, they would have an easy access to Silva in the near half space (or even Sane on the near flank).
Accessing Silva became easy due to Napoli’s first wave of press itself. When Mertens got close to one of City’s defenders, there would be other central defender free. Since Napoli pressed with a narrow formation, the one to pick up the other free central defender was the nearest wide player or Hamsik if possible. Say it was Callejon; when Callejon stepped forward to press Otamendi (City’s ball carrying defender) and Hamsik was tied up with Fernandinho at right 6, the short distance from Otamendi to Delph meant the Argentinian would easily access the free Delph. Added with the fact that the onward press by Callejon also freed some space in the wide area, Delph could then utilize this advantage by quickly playing a diagonal ball into Silva who was positioned around near the half space and flank.
Although sometimes Napoli’s compactness was able to hold Silva from directly progressing the ball to the last line right after receiving, the stable structure allowed City to re-circulate it via the 3-2/2-3 shape as well as pushed Napoli deeper into a mid-block. Thus, with the right timing and Silva occupying the space behind Napoli’s midfield, the Spaniard would be able to generate a dummy-like positioning which saw him allowed the diagonal pass, from the deep 5, to directly access Sane in the flank.
As aforementioned, the third key element in City’s possession was the high and wide positioning of both wide-forwards. Sane and Sterling’s positioning pinned back both Napoli’s full backs thus denying them adequate pressing access into the higher areas. Had Pep Guardiola (only) plotted 5 players in his build up play without such a positional support from his wide forwards, it would have been difficult for City to move from the first line to the next lines. By pinning both opposite full backs deep, there would be more space to exploit inside Napoli’s block (in front of Napoli’s defensive line).
But, again, when talking about support, we must remember that the positioning of Silva also played a big part during the process of ball progression from the deep 5. Silva’s positioning between the lines had generated decisional crisis to Napoli’s back line as well as holding the back line from quickly securing that intermediate space. Also, after the wide forward (Sane, for instance) received the pass, Silva’s presence, decision-making; and technical execution meant there was adequate support for Sane to generate a short combination (with Silva) to evade the touchline press as well progress into the final third.
Here is the simple visualization of the above explanation.
As we can see, the narrow 3-2 attracted the press from Napoli midfielder 5 which created big space in front of Napoli’s back line space. Sane received the pass and made a quick combination with Silva before the German made a deep run.
City’s positional structure and the dynamic within made it extremely difficult for the opponent to establish any constant pressing compactness. For example, when Delph received a pass from the first line and he had huge space to dribble into, it would attract backward press from all of Napoli’s midfielders. Supported and followed by the positioning of Sane, Jesus, and Delph in the near flank and half space inside Napoli’s block would push Napoli even deeper. This enabled City’s players in front the Napoli’s midfield line to re-circulate and switch to the opposite flank. This meant that the weaker side of Napoli’s defense was exposed.
As mentioned above, the wide forward positioning also provided another option for City. It was when City switched the play from one half space to the far flank. The first goal was started by such a play. Delph switched to the far right to Sterling in the final third. The support by Walker in Napoli’s middle third allowed City to gradually switch to the left flank. A diagonal through pass by Sane to Silva with less than adequate cover in Napoli’s box by their midfielder players (see Callejon, Hamsik, and Insigne) which in the end enabled Sterling to slot the 1st goal easily.
The second goal also came from City’s use of their wide forwards. This is one of City’s progression methods where they access the depth in the central sector. After a pass into the wide area, there will be one player to occupy the near half space. There was Sterling as the receiver and De Bruyne as the player in the near half space. The presence of De Bruyne was to support Sterling should the English International manipulate the 2v3 situation in favor for Napoli. The Belgian also dragged one of Napoli’s center backs (Koulibaly) out of his slot which created the 1v1 situation for Jesus in the center sector against Albiol. No clear 2nd ball orientation from the midfielders weakened Napoli’s transitional battle; enabling De Bruyne to recover the 2nd ball which resulted in an assist to Jesus.
Despite some of the struggles against City’s possession, there was one phase where Napoli’s press worked beautifully in the 32nd minute. A 4-3-3 high press enabled Napoli to contain City’s 2nd line. With both wide forwards and both side midfielders of Napoli narrow in the half space, Ederson decided to access Walker on the right flank. The ball did reach Walker, but the nature of the long ball and its bounce effect had provided enough time for Insigne and Hamsik to trap Walker and regain possession. A press by De Bruyne to Insigne was easily evaded as the quick support was provided by Ghoulam and Koulibaly who stepped into City’s half in the middle third. This was followed by another quick pass into the space to Hamsik by Diawara. The action was rightly and quickly taken by the 6 because City were yet to reach their defensive equilibrium. Thus when Hamsik received the pass, Fernandinho was late for a moment allowing Hamsik to play a wall pass with Zielinski. Long story short, Napoli had to recirculate the possession by playing it back to the back line before ending up the attack with the typical crossing play as Insigne crossed it into the blind side of far post to Callejon. Unfortunately for Napoli, Ederson managed to claim that dangerous cross.
Napoli’s possession approach
With City pressed high (three players in the first line of press), Napoli were often forced to play long balls and thus clean access was hardly generated. But when they did manage to keep the possession, after the said long ball, Napoli would again tried to create (more) space by playing it backward then, if needed, distribute it wide from side to side to stretch City’s compactness. The collective press-resistance made it possible for them to purposely play to the right flank then bring the ball back to the left side.
As always, Napoli emphasized the circulation through the left side. Napoli used Koulibaly as the support and covered the deepest ground of the local overload. There would be Hamsik (and Insigne) on the (slightly) higher space, mainly between City’s lines.
If clean access is hardly generated, Napoli would simply play it backward to loosen the opponent’s press. After that, the ball would again be played forward to Diawara/Koulibaly. If the access to Hamsik and Insigne was unavailable, it was Mertens to provide depth for his team to directly access the last line through the center area. But, if Hamsik (or Insigne) was available, the ball would then be played into their feet followed by Napoli’s typical box attack: playing a floated diagonal long ball to the far side forward (Callejon).
The other method used by Napoli was using Insigne to create play using his dribbling ability. With his speed and ability, Insigne’s approach was ideal for diagonal penetration. Napoli tried to maintain the support around the ball carrier as Hamsik and Ghoulam (sometimes Mertens joined in) stayed close to Insigne. Good for City, the security in front space of the last line often managed to block the diagonal (passing) lane for Insigne which prevented the Italian from playing it diagonally to the far post. Or if necessary, Pep’s team would make a tactical foul to stop Insigne.
Another point to pay attention to was Napoli’s transitional play. As seen in City’s 2nd goal, there was a clear positional problem. Later in the match, Napoli also displayed a similar weakness not in defensive phase, but it occurred in their attacking play. For an example, after a cross from the flank into the box, the distance from the last line in the box and the closest line at the outside of the opponent’s box was simply too far (more than 20 meters). Of course, this made it very easy for City’s midfielders to recover the loose ball.
Napoli more decisive
In the 2nd half, the main talking point was now how Napoli would press and have the ball as much as possible and how City could (still) defend against it.
Right after the break Napoli looked better and they managed to force the ball in City’s half. But, City’s defensive play was still remarkable. Sane, for example, went very narrow and far to the right half space of City’s defense which positioned him in the right place to give adequate security to City’s 6 space. This was crucial given one of Napoli’s principles is to play the ball into that intermediate space into Hamsik’s feet. With such a narrow structure, City managed to stop Napoli from exploiting the space between the lines.
City’s compactness in low block was established by 10 men defending around the early third. Jesus situationally made a blind side backward press to Napoli’s midfielder and helped his team to hold Napoli from gaining easy access into the space between the lines. In the last line, City’s central defenders’ anticipation movement indicated that they were wary of any threat of a deep pass to Napoli’s central striker.
The local overload against Napoli’s left focus was strong. De Bruyne would go for Hamsik and followed Napoli’s captain when he dropped slightly deeper. But, when Hamsik moved higher toward City’s 6 space, it would be Fernandinho to go for Hamsik. Silva went for Diawara or Allan – which one was closer to him – supported by the far winger (Sane) whose positioning was to cover the space around the center and far half space. Jesus’ defensive assignment was to press Napoli’s 6 as well as kept an eye on Koulibaly had the center back made any tendency to progress the ball.
But, again, it is nearly impossible for any team to fully stop Napoli from playing their offensive principle. A ball circulation from right to left and vice versa was able to ruin the horizontal shift of City’s press. This is a natural consequence. It is a hard job to keep the block highly compact when it has to over and over shift from one side to another let alone against such a press-resistant side like Napoli. The combination of Ghoulam, Mertens, Hamsik, and Zielinski could generate the lane for 3rd man play. And when they managed to generate it, Napoli were pushing City deeper. And when they reached the half space in the final third, it was the time again for Napoli to play a floated cross into the far post.
Ghoulam accessed Mertens in a pocket of space. A back pass by Mertens to Hamsik followed by a quick vertical pass by Hamsik to Ghoulam (Zielinski deceived City’s defense with a dummy). The next sequence was Ghoulam-Mertens-Hamsik and a long diagonal ball into the far post by Hamsik.
The only goal from Napoli was triggered by their attack on the left side. Ghoulam’s diagonal dribble exploited the space between Sterling and De Bruyne. His run into the box was stopped by Fernandinho who took him down with a tackle which resulted the second penalty.
For City, especially in their possession play, they made no change in their approach against Napoli’s high press. Pep’s boys circulated the ball across the defensive third to access their 6 behind Napoli’s 4-1 high press shape. And, after they accessed the 6, City would progress the ball through the full back on the flank.
In a more passive phase (goal kick, for example) Napoli were able to stop this City scheme. Here, Napoli were able to force City to play it long to the wide area. The effect was clear and has been explained in the earlier part of this piece. Long floated ball has its bounce effect and the distance to reach the target means it gives the opponents time to orientate the press better. Thus, in City-Napoli case, the visitors would be able to trap the receiver on the touchline and force a turnover.
An entertaining match, as expected. City displayed their footballing prowess and Napoli fought against the hosts without changing their usual attacking approach. City’s solid possession arguably played a big role in this important win, but their off-possession phase has to be lauded. City’s defensive overload managed to reduce the lethal effect of Napoli’s left side attack.
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