Napoli made a potentially historic decision last summer in hiring 57-year-old former banker Maurizio Sarri as head coach to fill the void left by Rafa Benitez, who departed for Real Madrid. Last season the club finished fifth in Serie A but currently they sit second, nine points behind reigning champions Juventus. For much of this season they looked capable of ending their long wait for a scudetto, which they have not won since 1990, though a recent loss of form appears to have put paid to that ambition.
Nonetheless, under Sarri’s auspices, the Partenopei have been one of the most entertaining sides in Europe. The signings of Jose Reina, Elseid Hysaj and Allan – the latter two of which were facilitated by new sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, who arrived from Carpi not long after Sarri’s appointment – were crucial, though not as much as the coach’s tactical influence.
In his previous job with Empoli, Sarri utilised a 4-3-1-2 system. Initially he attempted to implement this at Napoli, but after failing to register a single win in his opening three league games in charge, he brought in a 4-3-3 shape, which he has stuck with ever since.
The most noticeable aspect of Napoli’s football this season has been their attacking play. They have scored two goals per-game in Serie A and the individual performances of Gonzalo Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne have particularly caught the eye. But to understand exactly how Sarri’s side is so potent, it is first necessary to investigate how they build attacking moves.
A. Construction of possession
Napoli’s early build-up play is integral to their possession game. Primarily, this involves the two centre-backs, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol, and the deep-lying midfielder, Jorginho. Goalkeeper Reina and the full-backs, Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam, play a lesser role in this particular aspect.
For Koulibaly and Albiol, the first passing target is Jorginho. However, as opposed to simply giving the ball to the deep-lying midfielder to then progress it immediately forward, the ball often circulates between these three players, with Jorginho often passing instantly back to his central defensive teammates.
While not overtly threatening, this circulation is done deliberately in an attempt to destabilise the opposition by undercutting their defensive shape and creating opportunities to move the ball into more dangerous areas or situations.
First and foremost, this type of circulation is often done centrally, at close quarters (Napoli play a high defensive line, though more on that later) and occasionally under serious scrutiny by opposition forwards. It is also undertaken by three technically strong individuals with good ability to maintain composure under pressure. In short, it is not to be associated with the meandering, purposeless style of build-up seen in many other teams.
Napoli’s essential intention of undermining the opposition through build-up play is achieved in several different ways. Perhaps the most obvious one is simply by drawing out the first line of defence. This was seen frequently in the earlier portion of this season as teams looked to pressure Sarri’s side at an early stage of their possession.
In the first half of the season, some teams took a fairly assertive defensive stance against Napoli and attempted to apply pressure at an early stage of their build-up. However, more often than not, rather than flustering the three Napoli players in question into ceding the ball, it only led to space being created between the defending team’s lines.
More often, teams have taken a more passive approach to defending against Napoli in an attempt to retain a stable shape, however they have still been susceptible, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent.
Jorginho’s passing range is exceptional and, if not closed down, must at least be covered and limited. However, when teams take this route, the build-up between the playmaker and his central defensive teammates has often caused the opposition’s most advanced players to be dragged into either a central area or around Jorginho, freeing up diagonal passing lanes for Koulibaly and Albiol to find the outer central midfielders, Marek Hamsik and Allan, who in turn have less direct pressure on them. From there, the next stage of Napoli’s possession can begin.
On rare occasions, such as when Roma travelled to the Stadio San Paolo in December, the opponent has completely refused to pressure Napoli’s three key players in the build-up. Instead, the Giallorossi chose to sit back, retain a deep overall positioning and a compact setup. They gave space to Koulibaly and Albiol, while Jorginho had few viable passing lanes because of the deep defensive structure in front of him.
In instances like this, Koulibaly is occasionally tasked with carrying the ball forward. The French-born Senegal international is arguably the most improved player in Serie A this term. In his debut year under Benitez he appeared error-prone and clumsy, but under Sarri his distribution has sharpened up and he also appears more confident on the ball. He is strong and with underrated technical qualities, capable of driving forward in search of drawing pressure and creating a free man.
As well as destabilising the opposition, the ball circulation between Albiol, Koulibaly and Jorginho allows Napoli to ensure their own stability in preparation for the threat of any subsequent turnover of possession. Through the trio’s close positioning, they guarantee immediate access to and pressure on the ball-winning opponent should possession be relinquished.
While the centre-backs and defensive midfielder are the key figures in the early stages of Napoli’s possession game, there are occasions when the full-backs and outer midfielders become involved. This allows for variation in the build-up, as otherwise they could become predictable and easier to stultify simply with a centrally compact defensive system.
On these occasions, rhombi are sometimes apparent on either side between the deep-lying playmaker as well as the ball-near centre-back, outer central midfielder and full-back. On the left this shape is thus formed by Jorginho, Koulibaly, Hamsik and Ghoulam, while on the right it is formed by Jorginho, Albiol, Allan and Hysaj. These diamond shapes are positive for building possession as they allow for multiple diagonal passing lanes, which makes it difficult for the opponent to pressure effectively.
B. Left-sided rotation and ball progression
There have been occasions, particularly against deep, passive, defensive opponents, where Napoli have had to innovate in order to build successful attacks. In these specific circumstances, their left side has been an extremely useful tool, predominantly through the situational awareness, positioning and movements of Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne.
An example of this came in Turin in February, when Sarri’s side travelled to face Juventus in what was viewed as a potential title decider. Massimiliano Allegri fielded the reigning champions in a deep 4-4-2, congesting the space between their defensive and midfield lines. In this situation, Hamsik dropped back into the left half-space. This was done primarily to offer an alternative passing outlet for the centre-backs, as Jorginho was being cover shadowed by both Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata.
With Hamsik now occupying a deeper position closer to his own defensive line at an early stage in the build-up, Ghoulam was given license to push slightly further forward down the left flank. Insigne would then tuck infield to assume an advanced position in the left half-space, offering a direct vertical pass to Hamsik.
While this ploy has been successful in other instances it was not here, due mostly to the aforementioned congestion of space by Juventus. Insigne had little room to manoeuvre infield and subsequently struggled to offer a viable passing option to his captain. But this is far from the only rotation that Napoli’s left side is capable of.
A similar sequence of movements is often deployed at a later stage in the team’s attacking phase. Ghoulam will overlap fully down the left wing to provide a wide outlet, while Insigne will take up the left half-space as mentioned above. Hamsik will then retain a slightly less withdrawn role, essentially as part of the midfield line. The forward surge of Ghoulam combined with Insigne’s inward run then allows the Slovakian two forward passing options.
While he sometimes drops deep or retains his position in the midfield line, much of Hamsik’s movement in the attacking phase is based around driving forward into more advanced areas. One of his most important runs occurs when he moves deeper into opposition territory in the left half-space. Here, he breaks the opposition’s lines and offers a progressive passing option to Jorginho or Koulibaly, the left-sided centre-back. Alternately, he drags his man with him and creates space for his deeper teammates. In order to not clutter the same area, in this situation Insigne will hold a wide position on or near the left touchline, while Ghoulam will tend to play a more supportive than penetrative role. Here, Hamsik can also offer a viable outlet for combinations should Insigne be the player in possession on the left.
Another forward run sometimes executed by Hamsik is the overlap down the left wing. Again, here Ghoulam will play a more supportive role, as there is little benefit in two players overlapping in the same area at the same time. This movement is most commonly done as a space creation ploy to free up room for Insigne to cut inside onto his favoured right foot and attack the left half-space.
These rotations are used not simply to confuse the opponent’s markers – although this can be a side effect – but to allow Napoli to progress the ball efficiently into the final third area. However, the positional fluidity of Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne would not be so productive were it not for the common theme throughout all of these movements: the constant presence of triangles.
Depending on the situation, Hamsik may occupy the left wing and Insigne the inside channel; or Ghoulam will overlap down the flank; or Insigne will stay wide and offer space inside for the other two in this beguiling trio to instantly attack with the ball or gradually advance into without. But, while the set positions of each individual player vary, the overarching shape generally does not; they frequently take up a triangular layout. As a consequence, the ball-player tends to have at least two passing options available within this left-sided trident.
Another reason for this rotation, more specifically for Insigne’s tendencies, is that it allows Napoli to create a trequartista in-game despite not necessarily starting with one. Sarri brought the 4-3-1-2 system with him from Empoli clearly in the hope of using Insigne in the hole behind the strikers, though changing to 4-3-3 hasn’t prevented his personal whim from becoming reality.
The coach spoke of this in the aftermath to the Partenopei’s Europa League win over Legia Warsaw in October, which was only his fifth game using the 4-3-3. “I am intrigued by the role of the trequartista,” he told reporters. “But despite the change of system we are still making certain movements with the wingers that basically let them function as a trequartista.”
On the right, Jose Callejon also moves infield on a situational basis, though it is worth stating that Napoli by no means deploy the same movements on the right as they do on the left, and nor is the right quite as important to them when it comes to progressing the ball into attacking areas. Indeed, according to WhoScored’s statistics, 40 per cent of their attacks come down the left side, as opposed to 31 per cent on the right and 29 per cent through the middle. For context, no other team in Serie A utilises the left side with such frequency.
The right side is effective, but in other ways. A quick assessment of the individuals offers a glimpse into how Napoli use the right side. Allan, the right-sided outer midfielder, is a voracious ball-winner (no-one completed more tackles in Italy than he last season and few have this term) and a hard runner; Hysaj, the right-back, is a mobile yet slightly more defensive-oriented full-back; and Callejon is a fast, direct and firmly right-footed right winger. While similar movements do take place – Hysaj occasionally overlaps, as to does Allan, and Callejon moves infield from time to time – on the right as on the left, they are not as regular nor as effective.
The right-sided three are technically not as refined as their left-sided teammates, though their dynamism and directness is a good alternative for Napoli when necessary, especially when looking to switch the play and stretch the opposition after a concerted period of ball circulation on the left. One such movement that often occurs is when Callejon drives forward upon Insigne receiving the ball, offering the Italian a diagonal passing option over the top of, or through, the opposition’s defensive line.
C. Elements of verticality
Another element in what makes Napoli’s attacking play so effective is Sarri’s desire for verticality in possession. This is something he has brought with him from Empoli and was depicted nicely by Fabrizio Piccaretta. “What Sarri is trying to do is to subvert this principle, creating a mentality where the players think ‘vertical’ before … the rest,” writes Piccaretta. “This does not mean kicking the ball about (aimlessly) but, rather than keeping the possession by playing ‘horizontally’, Empoli (try) to exploit the depth of the pitch by passing the ball forward and backward. In order to do that, Empoli’s players occupy the space on the pitch creating several lines and triangles.”
Sarri has incorporated this into Napoli’s style of play since moving to the club last summer. In both their construction of possession and ball progression down the left side, vertical passing is heavily utilised. Koulibaly and Albiol aim to exchange passes with Jorginho or the outer midfielders rather than one another, thus tending to avoid horizontal passes. Furthermore, as already discussed, the constant movements of Ghoulam, Insigne and Hamsik are ultimately made to further the chances of moving the ball forward effectively.
No other team in Serie A has as much possession, on average, as Napoli. Indeed, only Fiorentina come close in this respect. But to mistake their play for tiki-taka, or some other form of play which prioritises ‘having’ the ball over ‘using’ the ball, would be mistaken. Virtually at all times, every Napoli player aims to move the ball forward. And, if they are not capable of doing so because of their body shape, long or slow horizontal passes are still generally eschewed in favour of backwards passes or quick, first-time touches for teammates to run onto.
As a result of their unwillingness to play sideways, Napoli set a high tempo. Their desire for purposeful, attack-minded possession is only augmented by the quickness of their passing, itself a by-product of a compact shape. Napoli’s high defensive line ensures a good level of vertical compactness, while – due to the inward situational movements of the outer midfielders and wingers – the team also tends to retain a fairly horizontally compact shape. With little space between each individual player, Napoli are better able to play their fast, short-passing game.
While the speed of their play is what catches the eye, it is the inconspicuous movements of the likes of Hamsik, Callejon, Insigne and Higuain that allow Napoli to break opposition lines so consistently. As already discussed, Hamsik and Insigne rotate, though one of the aims is always to create space between the opposition’s defence and midfield for one of them to move into. Callejon also occasionally drifts infield into the right half-space. The Spaniard has the same aim as his left-sided teammates, to offer a viable forward passing outlet for his teammates involved in the earlier stages of Napoli’s build-up, such as Jorginho.
It is only with this movement that Sarri’s verticality can flourish. Were his players more static, with less rotation and fluidity, there would be less possibilities to penetrate the opposition’s lines with forward passes. As a consequence, possession would be more staid, sideways and relatively ineffectual.
First-time passes also play an important role in furthering this theme of Napoli’s attacking play, with Higuain particularly good in this sense. The Argentine predominantly plays on or near the opponent’s defensive line, although he will sometimes drop much deeper in order to offer another vertical passing outlet. When he drops deep centrally, he then looks to play immediate one-touch passes to the side for midfield runners, usually Hamsik and Allan, to latch onto and continue to drive forward. Ideally, Higuain will have drawn his marker with him, thus freeing up space in-behind for the runners to move into. If not, he may control the ball and turn himself as opposed to looking for a quick layoff.
D. Avoidance of quick counter-attacks
With such a complex passing game it is crucial that Napoli have a strong collective positional structure when beginning to build moves. Should an individual be out of place the entire shape can be distorted, and the team’s ability to move the ball forward effectively can be undermined. As a result they tend not to opt for immediate counter-attacks when recovering the ball deep in their own half.
Instead, Napoli utilise elaboration in transitions to the attacking phase from the back, seeking to re-establish their positioning in the process. While this occasionally means missing out on the opportunity to exploit momentary weakness in the opponent’s defensive shape following the breaking down of an attack with more direct passes, the ploy works to further Sarri’s strategic aims with possession. It bolsters Napoli’s objective to build quality possession through familiar movements.
One drawback of this approach is that it allows the opposition to reset themselves in their transitions to defence. Some teams have taken advantage of this, particularly Fiorentina, who were able to counter-press Napoli quite well in their meeting at the Artemio Franchi.
E. Ball-oriented defensive movement
A player’s defensive movements can be directly influenced by four things: the opposition, the ball, teammates, and space. Many teams use one or a combination of these four elements when deciding upon their marking and pressing schemes. Sarri’s Napoli are decidedly ball-oriented in their defensive movements.
Napoli tend to use a high pressing scheme in transitions to the defensive phase. What this means is that, once an attacking move has been intercepted, or the ball has been turned over deep in opposition territory, they will try to recover possession immediately by applying pressure to the opponent in question high up the pitch. This pressure is ball-oriented, meaning Napoli’s players shift their position relative to the location of the ball. This entails pressuring the ball-player, as well as cutting off his immediate passing options and any other potential passing lanes.
This approach to winning the ball back is highly effective as it actively engages the opposition at an early stage in their possession, which can be disruptive, while also reducing susceptibility to combinations as, rather than focusing on the movement of individual players, Napoli concentrate on the ball-player and his options. As well as their aforementioned quality on the ball, this pressing scheme contributes to the team’s high possession statistics, as their opponents are generally unable to build stable possession of their own.
Once they are in a more established stage of the defensive phase, however, Napoli take up a slightly less assertive stance. The wingers fan out so the defensive shape is more of a 4-5-1, and individual players then take it in turns to join Higuain in pressuring the opposition, depending on where the ball is. For instance, if the ball is on the left inside channel, Hamsik would step out of the midfield line to apply pressure. This is most often used against sides with strong build-up play, such as Juventus. However, even here, the focus continues to remain on the collective defensive positioning while using the ball as a trigger for any changes in shape.
Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco commented on this aspect of Napoli’s play, saying, “With Maurizio Sarri, the reference for defenders is the ball. The defence must move to where the ball is, not the position of the opponents. Balance is also fundamental, as if one full-back goes on the attack, the other one has to stay close to the centre-backs.”
In order to avoid space opening up between the lines, this ball-oriented movement is something that must be carried out by the entire team, rather than just the attackers and midfielders. In this vein, Napoli play with a high defensive line which is integral to them in supporting this particular aspect of the team’s play, as well as in other ways.
F. High defensive line
Perhaps the most noticeable way in which the defensive line’s movements are determined by the position of the ball is something Di Francesco alluded to above – the movement of the full-backs, Ghoulam and Hysaj. When the opposition have the ball on one wing, the ball-near full-back will move up, while the other one will form a fairly compact three-man, one-line cover with the centre-backs. This move is done to scrutinise the opponent’s ball-player while maintaining good zonal coverage for passes or movements infield.
In terms of how they fit into the overarching structure of the team, Napoli’s back four hold a high defensive line, often on or around the halfway line, depending on who has the ball and where the ball is within the opposition’s half. The primary reason for this positioning is to support the team’s high pressing scheme. Were the defensive line to play slightly deeper, this would leave a sizeable gap to the midfield line. This vertically uncompact setup would then offer space between the lines for the opposition to exploit.
In holding a high line, the defence is able to support the high press of Napoli’s attacking players, ensuring more comprehensive coverage. This is because, should the opponent look to bypass Napoli’s initial press with a ball over the top into midfield, Napoli’s defensive line is in position either to simply recover the loose ball or compress space for the opposition ball receiver, making the opponent’s possession less stable.
The back four are also well drilled in holding the line and thus can be used to set offside traps. With Napoli pressing in the opposition’s half, their opponents are sometimes forced to go long, playing direct balls deep into Napoli territory simply to relieve the pressure. When this happens, the high defensive line can often lead to offside calls.
There are times, however, when the high defensive line has offered opportunities to the opposition. In Napoli’s recent defeat to Inter Milan at the San Siro, the hosts opted to play direct passes over the top of Napoli’s defensive line for striker Mauro Icardi to run onto. This proved successful not just in providing scoring opportunities, but in forcing Napoli to turn and move back towards their own goal, from where Inter could move higher up the pitch and pressure them into mistakes. Another example of the long ball exploiting the space behind Napoli’s high defensive line came in Bologna last December, with Mattia Destro tasked with playing on the shoulder of Koulibaly and Albiol. Villareal also had some success with this in their Europa League meeting , using the pace of Cedric Bakambu, albeit to a lesser extent.
Thus Napoli’s high defensive line is a risk, but it is a calculated one, with the thought process being that the benefits to the team’s overall defensive structure outweigh the occasional lapse or long ball leading to goals conceded. Furthermore, Reina is technically adept enough to act as a sweeper keeper and can thus come out to control any passes that may be played behind the back four.
In addition to its defensive benefits, the high defensive line aids Napoli in their attacking play. With a more vertically compact shape, where there is little space between the back four and the attacking three, there is greater possibility to involve the defenders in the attacking phase. In a high line, the defenders are better able to offer viable short passing options to the midfielders. This can be done when there are no available forward passing lanes in order to retain the ball and to try and draw the opposition out of a deep defensive block, creating space in behind.
Napoli are highly unlikely to win the scudetto in 2016, but thanks to Maurizio Sarri’s tactical influence, they are in a much better position to challenge Juventus’ dominance in Italy in the years to come. They are not infallible defensively, particularly against those who play effective, direct football. However in almost all other aspects of their defensive phase they are an improved force. Their attacking play is also much improved, with more co-ordinated movements throughout the team.
While they may end up as Serie A’s second-best team this season, Sarri’s Napoli have stolen the hearts of many a neutral fan and the prospects of watching them both develop and compete in the Champions League in the near future are worth looking forward to.