After giving Juventus a run for their money last season, expectations were high for Nápoles. Maurizio Sarri’s team dealt very well with the departure of their record-breaking striker Gonzalo Higuain and started the new season with the same offensive punch and beautifully played football.
Arkadiuz Milik did his part to help Napoli fans to forget Higuain, scoring 6 goals in his first 5 games. However, the international break brought some awful news. Milik injured himself playing for Poland and will not be available for many months. This incident marked the start of a bad stretch of play by Sarri’s team , registering 3 consecutive defeats. It was a major setback for the club, especially in the league, where the team was hoping to keep up with Juventus at the top of the table. Let’s see what is working and not working in the 2016/17 version of Napoli.
Sarri’s team still is a joy to watch. The ball always played out of the defense, simple triangulations and intricate rotating schemes in order to create numerical advantage. A complex possession system that ensures absolute control over the ball and is very hard to defend against.
It is a clear fact what Sarri wants from his trio of forwards. Insigne (or Mertens) is the link between midfield and attack, always looking to play behind the opposing midfield line. Callejón provides width on the right lane, stretching the opposing defense, both horizontally and vertically. From the center forward, Sarri expects a player very involved in the buildup, but also with the ability to get himself in a position to finish. That is a hard balance to achieve. It’s in this position that Napoli has encountered many of their problems to move forward. It was noticeable with Milik, but it got worse when Gabbiadini took his place after the injury.
In the picture above we can see both Callejón and Gabbiadini trying to get behind the defense with speed, leaving Insigne – whom falls slightly to the middle – with no easy options for a pass. Eventually was Hamsik stepping up from the midfield to support.
Another instance where Gabbiadini and Callejón are both pushing Roma’s defense back, creating space, but then it has to be Hamsik to move up in order to support Insigne. That’s not a bad dynamic per se but brings up two issues:
- The team is much more inclined to play through the left, as it is the flank where the two most potent creative weapons live: Insigne and Hamsik. That’s especially true when Allan starts. Piotr Zielinski is a much more creative player and brings a certain balance to Napoli’s attack.
- Asking Hamsik to go up in such a premature phase of the offensive process is too risky. A lost ball at the wrong time can put the team in a tough spot to answer to a counter-attack. What Gabbiadini should do (what Milik was doing until the injury) is draw near to support Insigne and Hamsik in the early phase of attack so when the possession is well established in the final third, he moves up to areas close to the goal. That way, it would be easier to sneak on opposing defenders and Napoli’s attack would be much more balanced. By trying to get forward too early, Gabbiadini, in fact, removes himself from the play and disconnects from the rest of the team.
For a team that has a supported style of play, that’s not good. Even if Gabbiadini does what he’s supposed to do in this situation, that could not be enough, because he lacks the qualities required for the job. He’s not a player to play with his back to the goal. He’s always trying to get behind the defense. He wants the ball in space, not in his feet. This is a fundamental problem that Sarri has to solve, at least until Milik returns.
Now we get to the real issue with Napoli. Even with the imbalances discussed above, the team relies on the technical ability of players like Insigne, Hamsik, Callejón, Mertens, etc, being enough for the team to be dominant in the vast majority of the games. In the defense, one may notice there’s an even bigger overconfidence on the individual abilities, especially regarding Koulibaly´s physical strength, who can disguise many of the team’s defensive shortcomings through his power and speed.
Napoli has one thing in mind when the opposing team has the ball: to get it back. That’s something essential in Sarri’s philosophy. As soon as the team loses the ball, they get the counter-press going, rushing as many players to the side of the ball as possible.
That can be very effective and is one of the main reasons why Napoli is dominant in possession time (57.3% – 2nd best in Serie A). However, this strategy can leave the team exposed if not executed properly. It´s very demanding in physical terms and it’s impossible to counter-press an entire game. You have to pick wisely when it’s time to counter-press and when it’s time to sit a little deeper and play a more positional defense. Napoli struggles to recognize those moments. They try to counter press all the time which leads to unorganized press, becoming easier to beat. Roma was able to exploit that gap by having their defenders to lob the ball over the first line of pressure, creating space that their midfielders could take advantage of.
Even when Napoli applies the pressure at the right time, with the right organization, there is a coverage problem on the weak side. Almost all the players get involved in the pressing, rushing to the strong side (the side of the ball) and leaving the weak side totally exposed, as one may see in the picture above. That also makes it easier to beat the pressure and gives opponents an avenue to attack without many obstacles. Worse than that, once the pressing is beaten, Napoli is totally unprepared to deal with a new point of attack. The team has to shift to the other flank and that takes time, time that quick counter-attacking teams can take advantage of. Those are the two main problems that Maurizio Sarri has to solve in order to make Napoli a real Scudetto contender.