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Over the last two years, Napoli have established themselves as the most beautiful team in Serie A. Their football has entertained far beyond their own fan-base, drawing gasps from neutrals and attention from across the continent.
At the same time, their football has been highly effective; after finishing second in Italy’s top tier last term they sit third this season, and they are also in the Champions League second round having topped a group containing Benfica, Dynamo Kiev and Besiktas.
Maurizio Sarri has significantly improved the quality of Napoli’s play since taking over from Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2015. The bespectacled former financier, who has no top-level playing career to speak of and only began coaching seriously in his 30s, has been the mastermind behind their revival. And, on Wednesday night, his side will pit their wits against the might of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid.
On paper, there is only one winner. The Spanish giants are the reigning and defending European champions, and they currently top La Liga by one point with two games in hand. However, Sarri’s side are capable of wonderful things on their day, and Wednesday could be their defining moment. There are a number of reasons why Napoli could end Real Madrid’s bid to retain the Champions League.
Koulibaly and co. can take away space and time
One of the more underappreciated aspects of Napoli’s game is their defensive work. Sarri’s side operate with a high, four-man defensive line that leads to much greater compactness between the defence and midfield in their 4-5-1 shape without the ball.
Two players are absolutely pivotal to this setup. Goalkeeper Jose Reina, formerly of Liverpool, is confident with the ball at feet and is therefore more than comfortable coming well out of his area to sweep up behind his defenders. In front of him, Kalidou Koulibaly has real speed, meaning that – even when playing high up the pitch – he is able to get back and recover any long balls over the top, or out-pace opposing strikers.
With their compactness, Napoli are more able to reduce space for their opposition deep in their own territory. This enables them to press in higher areas, something they do with great distinction, shifting as a group in accordance with the movement of the ball, pressuring the ball-player and closing down his passing options.
Europe's best possession game?
According to Squawka’s statistics, in the five major European leagues – Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 – only Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain complete more passes per game than Napoli. And, when considering the high levels of tactical organisation and defensive rigour on show in Serie A, it is possible to argue that Napoli’s possession game is the most effective in Europe today.
Sarri’s side build out from the back extremely well, with their two centre-backs (Koulibaly and Raul Albiol or Nikola Maksimovic) and deep-lying central midfielder (Amadou Diawara or Jorginho) forming a triangle shape that allows for multiple passing options. And, should the opposition cover the deep-lying midfielder, Napoli’s centre-backs can go slightly wider with one of the outside central midfielders (Marek Hamsik and Allan or Piotr Zielinski) and form a triangle with the relevant full-back (Elseid Hysaj on the right or Faouzi Ghoulam on the left).
While this allows for good ball retention, simply having the ball is different to using it effectively. However, Napoli’s possession is penetrative, with a constant desire to play vertical forward passes through the opposition’s defensive block, forcing them to turn.
Once in and around the final third, Napoli look to play quick, one-touch passes to unsettle their opposition, denying them a chance to maintain a stable defensive shape. This leads to a high-tempo that can be highly difficult for opponents to predict or intercept.
Movement and firepower
While the excellent technical abilities of their individual players and the organisation of their possession game from beginning to end is crucial, so too is Napoli’s movement off the ball. This is particularly notable down the left side, where Ghoulam, Hamsik and Insigne combine well and rotate positions, taking it in turns to overlap, drop deep or come inside. This makes it hard for the opposition to track them, leading to spaces opening up in attacking areas.
Sarri has also, finally, been able to get the best out of both Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne. Previously, both players competed for the left wing berth, however this season the former has been utilised more centrally as a false nine. This has not only allowed Insigne to keep his place, but has enabled Sarri to fill the void left by Gonzalo Higuain’s departure for Juventus last summer — in all competitions so far this season Mertens has hit 20 goals in 29 appearances.
While this reshuffle of attacking options has left Napoli without the strength, hold-up and aerial power of a traditional centre-forward, it has only added to their movement, athleticism and interchanges in the final third. Mertens doesn’t act as a reference point for opposition defenders, flitting right and left in search of space and in order to link-up with Insigne and Jose Callejon, who usually plays on the right-hand side of the front three.
And, should Sarri wish to go for a more conventional route to goal, he now has the physical presence of Leonardo Pavoletti – a 6’2” striker who was signed from Genoa for €18 million – to call upon, as well as Arek Milik, who is now back in training after tearing a cruciate ligament earlier this season.
Napoli have also added to their attacking arsenal with greater variation this season. While previously they tended to eschew quick counter-attacks in favour of re-finding their attacking structure and building possession from the back, this term they have opted more frequently to attack instantly upon winning the ball in their own half.
Seventy-nine per cent of their goals in the league this campaign have come from open play, but rapid counters, such as that seen for their second goal in the 7-1 win over Bologna recently, have brought greater potency to an already potent attacking team.
With their organisation in all phases of the game, high tempo pressing and passing, and genuine firepower, Napoli pose a serious threat to any football team in Europe right now, including Real Madrid.