Ryan Tank provides a tactical analysis about the Serie A match that ended Napoli 0-0 Inter Milan
Inter Milan held Napoli and managed a point in San Paolo. A fairly deep block displayed by Spaletti’s boys against the aggressive home side got the job done.
Napoli: Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik, Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.
Inter: Ambrosio, Skriniar, Miranda, Ghoulam; Vecino, Gagliardini, Candreva, Valero, Perisic, Icardi.
Inter Milan’s defense vs Napoli’s possession
Luciano Spaletti’s initial plan of a low block was securing the 10 (by occupying Napoli’s 6), defended the defensive third using a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 basic formation, and blocking Napoli’s use of the diagonal passing lane from the left half space into the box.
Borja Valero, Inter’s number 10, would join the central midfield duo to secure the area around Inter Milan’s midfield line. This set up was to cope with Napoli’s left side focus. Borja was often found dropping quickly into the ball side half space to prevent Napoli from generating more promising spaces. Initially, the Spaniard orientated himself to Napoli’s 6 post and tried to eliminate it from supporting the possession phase. Such a duty, particularly in middle-block, was alternately done by Borja and Icardi. But, the two didn’t exclusively occupy Jorginho, the Napoli’s nominal 6. The defensive action of Borja and Icardi was somewhere in between space-oriented and man-oriented.
As previously mentioned in this piece, one of Napoli’s chance creation method is playing an in-swinging diagonal ball from the left half space to the right flank of the 18-yard box. On other occasions, Sarri’s boys would also play a more simple way by playing flat ground passes from the half space, towards the edge of the box, into the center or the ball side area of the box. In short, preventing Napoli from generating access through their left half space was imperative. Inter, in this aspect, using Borja (or alternatively, but rare, Icardi) to drop to the space and make an angle press along with the central midfielders and put the diagonal lane (from the half space into the box) behind their cover shadow as well to regain possession quickly.
Borja’s pressing movement seemed to be simple, but in fact, it was a very helpful one. He perceived and got it right when Napoli started their left side overload. Also, as he had to cover Jorginho, Borja’s positioning often shut down the space for the Napoli’s 6, forcing the hosts to re-circulate via their back liners thus creating a chance for Icardi to press the opponent’s back line.
Jorginho was able to make use of such pressing assignment for the good of Napoli’s progression. He used the intense press as the trigger to open the passing lane to the other players. By dragging Borja slightly away either the left or right, Jorginho was able to generate passing lanes for the ball carrying CB to Hamsik or Allan on both half spaces.
In the second half, after the introduction of Joao Mario, the press to Napoli’s 6 player was reduced. Mario didn’t make as much of a backward press to help cover the space in front of the back line which in turn provided more chances for Napoli to use their 6. But, on the other hand, his attacking ability and fresh condition made it quite difficult for Napoli’s back line to contain his attack.
As mentioned before, in the middle press, the task to occupy Napoli’s 6 was done alternately by both Borja and Icardi. In a low block, as shown above, as Borja dropped very deep into Inter’s defensive third, the one to pick up Napoli’s 6 was Icardi. But, in a high block the pressing assignment was different.
When pressing in a high block, Inter’s first line occupied the opponent’s first line with man-orientation in all locations. In the first line, the one to pick up both Napoli’s center backs (CB) were Icardi and any of Inter’s wide-men nearest to Napoli’s CB. The interesting assignment was handed to Ambrosio (Inter’s right full back), who was responsible to pick up Ghoulam (Napoli’s left back). Initially, the right full back stayed away from Ghoulam. The onward press to Ghoulam was triggered by an incoming pass from any of Napoli’s back liners or goalkeeper. Marking an opponent with such a behaviour was not an easy task. Ambrosio needed to make sure that the back line was secure enough before he could make a forward pressing run towards his assigned opponent.
At times, such a pressing assignment was the root of a minor issue in Inter’s high press. When Candreva stepped up, the interim space was between him and Ambrosio. When Perisic was the one stepping into the first line, then the “hole” was between the Croatian and the full back behind him. A chipped pass from the CB or goalkeeper would easily reach the free full back and with a one touch “wrong-foot” pass, the receiving full back was able to progress it to the near wide forward in the higher space. In the 7th minute, Napoli made a promising move from such a pattern. Koulibaly made a chipped pass to Ghoulam, followed by a chest pass by Ghoulam to Insigne. Napoli were able to get into Inter’s half, after Insigne made a quick wall pass with Mertens. A through pass by Insigne to the onrushing Ghoulam, unfortunately, did not meet its target.
Not only their full backs, Napoli also used Hamsik or Allan to advance the ball into higher area by getting either of the two closer to the 6 space. In the 40th minute, Napoli managed to generate a very smooth and clean progression from defensive third into Inter’s middle third.
It started with the visitors pressing with a flat 4-4-2. At the back, as the hosts’ line up created a 3v2 in favor of them, Albiol beat the press very easily and progressed with ball at his feet. In Napoli’s middle third in the right half space, when Albiol dribbled the ball forward, Allan and Mertens, who were also in the same half space as Albiol, manipulated Inter’s middle press. Allan moved forward and dragged Gagliardini into his own middle third, Mertens dropped into the half space and dragged Vecino toward that space. As the result, Albiol had an easy pass to the free Hamsik who occupied the space behind Inter’s forward duo in the left half space. When Hamsik approached Inter’s own half, there was Candreva, in Inter’s right half space, to put a press on him. But, an inward movement by Insigne, from the flank into the space behind Candreva had again made another deception and stopped Candreva from stepping forward. This, in turn, enabled Hamsik to pass it to the onrushing Ghoulam on the wing. A combination between Ghoulam and Hamsik provided enough time for Mertens to make a diagonal run into the intermediate area of Inter’s defense. Unfortunately, Mertens couldn’t control Hamsik’s pass and it resulted a goal kick for Inter.
Here, Napoli were able to progress, because of (as they have been well-known for) the excellent spacing of their positional play. This was the evident against Inter when, despite fighting against such a compact side, they could still record a 1.1 in xG stat of Michael Caley’s model.
One of the crucial keys in successful counter(gegen)pressing is the role of the central midfielders. For a read on this topic you have to read a piece by my friend, Ed Ames who wrote an excellent explanation of Pochettino’s Tottenham counterpress and the role of the central midfielders.
In this match against Napoli, Inter played a very deep block of 4-4-1-1/4-5-0-1. The two sixes, stayed deep almost all the time to secure the space in front of the back line with help from 10 occasionally. The fact that Inter defended in a very deep block indirectly helped in stabilizing Napoli’s counterpress. With their ball-orientated move, all Napoli’s central midfielders (the 8 and 6) were always able to cover the space around the ball. They covered the central space, preventing the opponent’s winger from quickly creating progression access thus providing time for Napoli’s near wide forward to drop and press.
The scene of 36th minute was an excellent example. Prior to Hamsik’s tackle on Candreva (and Hamsik managed to make a quick regain), Inter’s right winger dribbled the ball forward. In the center, there was Borja Valero. But, instead of passing the ball to Borja, Candreva decided to dribble it wide towards the wing. Why Candreva made such an action was simple, because Jorginho was there, in the center, covering the same space to Borja.
With a very deep block and 9 players in the defensive formation, Inter’s vertical presence was greatly reduced. Icardi was often found to be static in the 9 space which meant there was a big vertical gap between Inter’s forward and midfielders. The back line provided adequate support to Napoli’s central midfield. This in turn enabled the central midfield to make any needed actions (onward press, wide movement, or even a very long distance onward press into the upper final third).
In the second half, Sarri made three changes. The benefit of these substitutions was that they were able to keep the pressing intensity. These three fresh players were able to press intensely thus also maintained the good level of Napoli’s counterpress.
Inter were the polar opposite. Spaletti’s attack was more direct. Inter were often seen trying to access the last line as soon as possible. With such an approach, should the ball arrive to the last line, the spacing was not optimum which meant that there were many unoccupied spaces which in turn made it difficult for the receiver to develop the attack into a more beneficial situation.
Napoli’s high press against Inter’s build up
Inter focused their build up on the right side. They established an asymmetric shape with Ambrosio staying deep in the same line with two CB’s. Sometimes, one of the CB stepped slightly higher into the 6 space. Inter were able to bypass Napoli’s first line, but then they found it difficult to break Napoli’s next lines, particularly when it came to the last line.
Napoli pressed Inter’s build up by using three players in the first line. Mertens occupied the central space and pressed the center half. He was supported by two wide forwards whose press was orientated to both Inter’s half backs. The central midfielders orientated to the space behind the first line and picked up any free players.
The key of Inter’s build up was the diamonds. On the right side, Ambrosio, Skriniar, Miranda, and Vecino established the diamond. On the left side, there were often Miranda, Skriniar, Gigliardini, and Handanovic joining in the diamond since Nagatomo was pushed higher.
In the above graphic, the ball was played forward by Miranda to Gigliardini who then played it back to Handanovic. After that, the youngs 6 indicated that he was going to move up. But, in a second, he changed his mind and decided to drop deeper as he asked Handanovic to play the ball into his feet. Why? Because Giglia realized that Mertens’ press on Handanovic would also allow more space for Skriniar. So, a pass to Skriniar would surely generate an easy and clean access progression into higher ground. A pass from Handanovic to Gigliardini was then quickly played, by Giglia himself, into Skriniar which enabled Inter to progress from their first line.
This, in fact, had been one of Inter’s methods of progressing from the first line. Inter played it wide to one flank and established a diamond, triangle, or even a hexagon around the ball in order to make it easy for them to switch cleanly to the far CB and progress.
After progressing, the next target was the space behind Napoli’s midfield line. The one to occupy such a space was Borja Valero. Napoli’s pressing intensity itself had enabled Inter’s first line to access Borja. Sometimes, Napoli midfielders made a late onward press which provided more space and time for Inter’s midfielders to receive. But, should they manage to access the said space, it didn’t mean that Inter found it easy to create the next attacking moves. Instead, here the problem occurred.
After a pass to Borja, Inter’s next passing route was often a back pass or horizontal pass or long float pass to Icardi in the last line. At times, Inter managed to generate a progression lane but it was hardly a clean access as Inter played it long to Icardi or long to the flank. If Icardi received the pass, Napoli’s back line often managed to stop it easily since Icardi faced the opponent’s goal with his back or at the other time he received a very difficult pass. On other occasions, Inter played it wide to Nagatomo, but as the match went by, we can clearly see that Nagatomo had been the weak link for Inter. He misplaced passes and his passing choice also bad. In short, almost all the progression from Nagatomo failed to generate clean/promising attacking situations for Inter.
An interesting tactical battle. Inter with their compact structure against the aggressive Napoli. Both teams showed that they are ready for the Champions League spot battle. Inter were impressive defensively. They displayed some nice build up plays in their defensive third but found it hard to penetrate cleanly into the last line. On the other hand, Napoli, as always, displayed their aggressive left side attack supported by a structured ball possession. The gegenpressing was strong and make it even harder for the opponent to cope with anything performed by Hamsik and co.
With Inter’s strong defense, Napoli as a complete side, also Lazio and Roma who have been showing some promising performances, Serie A fans may now be wishing that this season is going to feature an interesting title race; a potentially tough season for Juventus.
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