Napoli maintained their perfect start to the Serie A season, and their use of the full-backs was key to getting the three points on Saturday evening.
Words: Lee Scott (@FMAnalysis)
One of the overarching questions surrounding Italian football before the start of this season was whether Napoli were finally in a position to launch a sustained title challenge against Juventus. Fast forward to now and we are approaching the end of September and early signs are exceptionally promising for the side from Naples as they are sitting on top of Serie A.
The season so far however has not gone completely to plan for Maurizio Sarri’s men, as they fell to a defeat in their opening match in the Champions League group stages, losing 2-1 away to Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk. Since that match however Napoli have gone from strength to strength with impressive victories over Benevento and Lazio seeing Napoli score ten goals and concede only one. Now, however, Sarri and his side would have another trip to the unknown as they travelled to face SPAL.
The newly promoted side have enjoyed something of a varied time in Serie A so far this season. A draw away to Lazio and a win at home to Udinese in the first two match days provided a promising start, but since then consecutive losses to Inter, Cagliari and Milan, all without scoring, have put a more negative spin on matters.
How then would this SPAL side cope with the visit of one of the most potent and impressive attacking sides in Europe?
This season has seen SPAL prefer a three man defensive line with five across the midfield and two strikers either playing in fixed forward positions or as one advanced forward and one player dropping in behind to connect the midfield and the attack.
SPAL: Gomis, Salamon, Vicari, Felipe, Lazzari, Schiattarella, Viviani, Mora, Costa, Borriello, Antenucci
Everyone knows in advance exactly how Napoli will line up, Sarri favours a very fluid and attacking 4-3-3 system. The only real question surrounds the configuration of the midfield three.
Napoli: Reina, Hysaj, Maksimovic, Koulibally, Ghoulam, Zielinski, Diawara, Hamsik, Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.
Napoli use full-backs in advanced areas
In the end the match finished 3-2 in Napoli’s favour but, as is so often the case, the final result does not tell the full story of the match. Napoli were dominant through large periods of the match controlling the ball and attempting to overwhelm the SPAL defensive structure. That however proved to be a difficult task as the home side kept a deep and compact defensive block to prevent the Partenopei finding spaces in the final third.
As is so often the case when faced with teams who sit in a deep compact block the best way to get in behind and attack the penalty area is via the wide areas, where there tends to be more space to play. This is where the Napoli full-backs were utilised effectively, the important aspect however was the way that Napoli moved the ball in to these wide areas to prevent the SPAL defensive block from shifting over to negate the wide spaces.
In this example we see the right-sided central defender Nikola Maksimovic moving forwards with the ball, the fact that the central defender is able to move in to this more advanced area without coming under significant pressure is indicative of the defensive plan of SPAL.
The space is once more in the wide areas where Hysaj is advancing on the right side. If the pass from Maksimovic, however, is straight to Hysaj then the SPAL defensive unit can shift across easily to block space.
Instead the first pass is vertical in to a player in the advanced area, this pass effectively pins the SPAL structure in place and allows Hysaj to develop his position more. The second pass then frees Hysaj in the wide area.
Again here the focus is on the right hand side of the pitch for the Napoli attack although this time the initial pass comes from a more advanced area.
Once again the goal is to manipulate the SPAL defence in such a way to free Hysaj on the right hand side of the field. Because of the tight spaces the initial pass in to the central areas is a tighter one but it serves the same purpose as the first example, to pin the defensive structure centrally.
The second pass then is played in to the wide area, allowing Hysaj freedom and time to attack and try to get behind the SPAL defensive unit.
Napoli concentrate on the left side
Whether playing against a relatively defensive side or not there is one part of Napoli’s attacking gameplan that remains constant, they favour the left side of the field when in their attacking phase. The main reason for this attacking bias is a simple one, two of the most important attacking players for the side concentrate their positioning and movement on the left hand side, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne.
Combined with the attacking presence of Faouzi Ghoulam from left back this triumvirate combine extremely well.
This pass map, which was created by @11tegen11 using Opta data, clearly shows the left sided preference from Napoli in this game. Whilst Diawara in the centre was important when Napoli were in possession there was a clear preference in switching the play out to the left hand side.
One of the reasons for this preference was the excellent movement and rotation that Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne provide.
This example shows this rotation in action. Insigne has moved in to the central area whilst captain Hamsik has rotated in to the wide area to ensure that the width is retained. This movement makes it exceptionally difficult for the opposition to effectively mark the Napoli attackers as they move forward.
Throughout the match the three players on the left side were a constant problem for SPAL defensively.
The rotation in this example again features those three players, Hamsik, Insigne and Ghoulam. On this occasion the movement and positioning of the three players is similar to what was in the first example. Hamsik has again moved out wide on the left hand side as Insigne has moved inside to create the space in the wide area.
As Ghoulam advanced forward with the ball the rotation has pulled the SPAL defensive organisation apart and created space that Napoli can look to exploit, by moving the ball quickly between the three players out on the left side they can then look to exploit these weak points in the SPAL defence.
As mentioned previously the 3-2 scoreline in this match fails to tell a full and accurate story of the game. SPAL were impressive in patches and their direct approach in the attacking phase certainly caused Napoli problems.
In truth though there was little doubt in the outcome of the match from the early stages, Napoli were dominant in possession of the ball and dominant with the movement and positioning of their players in and around the final third.
It remains to be seen whether Napoli can sustain a title challenge over the entire calendar of fixtures but on the evidence of this match they are certainly in a better position to break down stubborn opponents than we saw last season.