Newly promoted Pescara welcomed last season’s Serie A runners-up Napoli to the Stadio Adriatico on Sunday 21 August in the opening round of 2016-17 fixtures. The home side made a stunning start to their top-flight return, going 2-0 up in the first half thanks to goals from Ahmed Benali and Gianluca Caprari. However, they faded in the second half, with Dries Mertens scoring twice to earn Napoli a 2-2 draw.
Pescara head coach Massimo Oddo lined his team up with a basic 4-3-2-1 shape, though this became a 4-5-1 in the defensive phase. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli lined up in the same 4-3-3 shape as last term, though their established defensive shape was also 4-5-1 .
Pescara deep press
In the defensive phase, Benali and Valerio Verre, Pescara’s two attacking midfielders, dropped back to take on the wide positions diagonally to the side of the midfield trio of Bryan Cristante, Gaston Brugman and Ledion Memushaj, forming a midfield five with a slight u-shape. Meanwhile Francesco Zampano, Norbert Gyomber, Andrea Coda and Cristiano Biraghi formed a horizontally compact back four. Striker Gianluca Caprari was the only Pescara player who tended to take up a position ahead of the ball in these circumstances.
They aimed to ensure vertical compactness between the defensive and midfield lines as a method of congesting the space in which Napoli’s front three could rotate positions and interchange passes. Pescara also operated a deep press, allowing the visitors to advance possession well beyond the halfway line and into their own half. Within the deep press Oddo’s side had relatively passive man-orientated marking, with instructions for the relevant man to close down the Napoli ball-player. However, the press was quite deliberately not executed with any real intensity, with a simultaneous desire to retain a compact shape and not be drawn out by Napoli’s movements.
Benali and Verre played important individual roles in this phase. Having taken up their deeper positions, they would work to ensure gaps did not appear between them and the outside midfielders in the central three so as not to open up the half-spaces. By forming a horizontally tighter midfield line, they attempted to encourage Napoli possession wide to the advanced full-backs, Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam. Angling their body positioning so that they were not facing the ball-player, they would then try to intercept the pass out wide in order to initiate a quick counter-attack as efficiently as possible.
Pescara’s build-up was focused primarily on playing the ball out from the back, usually along the ground. In order to achieve ball progression and successfully bypass Napoli’s press in this way, they required strong connections between players, something they often achieved through the formation of diamond shapes.
The diamond shape’s principal theoretical benefit to building effective ball possession is that it enables multiple forward passing lanes for the ball-player: one diagonally to their left, one diagonally to their right, and one vertical option.
Pescara’s players occasionally formed diamond shapes to aid their build-up, as seen below. Cristante receives the ball in the right half-space, and Zampano takes up a position to his right. Brugman comes across to offer another diagonal passing lane, while Benali takes up a position vertically facing Cristante. With three passing lanes available, Napoli struggled to prevent Pescara from progressing the ball.
The movements of Benali and Verre were very important to Pescara’s ball possession, enabling the Delfini to move the ball through the thirds more easily. In the attacking phase, each player drifted infield into the space between Napoli’s midfield and defensive lines, creating a two-layered, five-man midfield that essentially sandwiched Napoli’s midfield three of Marek Hamsik, Mirko Valdifiori and Allan. Benali and Verre’s movements were enabled by the advancement of the full-backs, Zampano and Biraghi, who often occupied high positions down their respective flanks in the attacking phase.
This setup took advantage of Napoli’s ball-orientated high press. Sarri’s side utilised this to good effect last season though here, with Napoli’s full-backs occupied by Zampano and Biraghi and their central midfielders focused on pressing Cristante, Brugman and Memushaj, Benali and Verre were able to move laterally between the lines, creating two versus one situations with their central midfield team-mates and offering penetrative forward passing lanes. This in turn meant Pescara were able to play with verticality, passing through Napoli’s defensive setup rather than around or in front of it, and work the ball quickly into dangerous areas in front of the Partenopei defensive line.
Napoli new attacking dynamic
While they struggled to deal with Pescara’s possession game, Napoli’s high defensive line ensured that, even when their midfield line was penetrated, little time and space was offered to the Pescara ball-receiver to turn and run at the Napoli defence. In addition, the penetration took place far away from goal, allowing greater time for correction of position.
Napoli’s problems were not restricted to their defensive phase, however. They lost last season’s top scorer Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus over the summer and, while Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne remain, their attacking dynamic was different to 2015-16.
Higuain, with his physical strength and ball control, offered a strong central reference point for attacks. The likes of Insigne and Hamsik could play passes into him safe in the knowledge that he would be able to hold off even the most attentive of markers. With Manolo Gabbiadini filling the vacancy following Higuain’s departure, however, this option no longer exists.
Napoli’s front three were far more centralised and far more positionally fluid against Pescara than they were last season in a clear attempt to compensate for the loss of Higuain’s hold-up qualities. Insigne and Callejon, instead of playing wall-passes with the physically weaker Gabbiadini, moved in tandem with him in order to try and drag Pescara’s defensive line out of position and create space to attack. Their movements tended to be vertical in nature, with one or two of the trio dropping deep while the remaining one or two would seek to exploit any gaps created.
Unfortunately, with this attacking setup still relatively new, it had a few teething problems. One was that occasionally players’ movements led to ineffective spacing, with two on the same horizontal line and without any real viable connection to allow for penetrative possession; another was that they were often too central, with players’ failing to make runs to stretch Pescara’s defensive line and draw attention away from the attacker in possession.
Pescara’s deep defensive shape and man-orientations didn’t help Napoli in this respect, but they often didn’t help themselves through poor movement.
Pescara almost caught Napoli out in the first half with the structure of their build-up and verticality in possession. The newly promoted side were not particularly quick in defensive transitions (something they may need to work on in future) but Napoli’s preference for elaboration in attacking transitions meant this was not so much of an issue. Napoli were also too slow transitioning to defence initially but, after improving this in the second half, they gained greater control of the match and secured the draw.