“If we play like that against Arsenal, then we’re in trouble.” Carlo Ancelotti had rung the alarm after defeat to Empoli and a draw with 10-man Genoa, but Napoli still looked fast asleep in the Emirates and paid the price. Now it remains to be seen if the Europa League situation is salvageable.
In truth, Arsenal were excellent, but Ancelotti will look at his own game plan and question his tactics. The tie, whilst not over, leaves the Partenopei with a monumental task. They will have to breathe in every last bit of the ferocious atmosphere that their home fans will generate at the Stadio San Paolo in the return leg, if they have any hope of progressing to the next round.
It was perhaps a surprise to some that Ancelotti seemed to pick a mildly cautious team for the trip to London. Arkadiusz Milik, who has been in superb form this season, was left on the bench. His 16 goals have come from only 45 of his 76 shots on target, his 59% accuracy eclipsing that of Cristiano Ronaldo, Duvan Zapata, Krzysztof Piatek and Fabio Quagliarella. Instead, the Coach opted for a front two of Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens so that he could play on the counter-attack with pace, as he knew how strong Arsenal have been at home, but that their defence lacked speed.
Neapolitan staff and players alike conceded that they had made errors in the game. The overall conclusion was that the team were too timid and had tried to start the game with possession, but were surprised by the ferocity of Arsenal’s press. This forced the defenders to make errors, and if hadn’t been for Meret in goal, the game could have been much worse. Napoli’s midfield had been over-run by the industrious Aaron Ramsey and Lucas Torreira and when the final whistle went, the Partenopei breathed a sigh of relief, despite rallying in the second half.
It is not often that the sun doesn’t shine on the bay of Naples and it will be rays of light that the fans and the squad will be looking towards in the second leg. Firstly, Arsenal’s away form has been extremely poor and this will mean that Unai Emery will probably change tack with his forward line and how he presses, especially with a two-goal cushion. Napoli will also look at the game differently, as they will have the intense emotion on the San Paolo behind them and need a much more aggressive approach. Arsenal’s Torreira (formerly of Sampdoria) has experienced this before and said that the atmosphere will have an influence.
Whether Ancelotti reverts to his trident up front and include Milik will be a talking point. Napoli director of sport Cristiano Giuntoli confirmed before the game that Insigne and Mertens were there to “attack Arsenal defenders with quality and pace.” but this didn’t work. Even when Arsenal played a high line in the second half, the advantage wasn’t grasped.
Napoli certainly have a chance to go through to the next round, but the work starts this weekend against Chievo. They must re-establish some form and who better to play than the team on course to finish the season with the lowest points total in Serie A history? A convincing win will allow them to focus on Arsenal with renewed optimism, they certainly cannot be as lapse after Empoli and Genoa.
With Juventus most likely starting their Scudetto party this weekend, Napoli were meant to focus all their energies on the Europa League and winning silverware on the continent for the first time since 1989. That’s what makes the sluggish attitude against Arsenal not just confusing, but positively unforgivable.