Team analysis: SSC Napoli

s-s-c-napoli-vector-logoSSC Napoli are waiting for the match against Real Madrid, as they have advanced to the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League. It’s difficult to tell whether they have a big chance or not, but what is more interesting, they have been praised a lot in the recent few weeks by both the fans and analysts for their entertaining and fancy attacking football. Former Empoli coach Maurizio Sarri has managed to build a similar possession-based side,and it’s glad to watch his current team playing football as well. Napoli follow several principles which might be noted in a classical team playing juego de posición(aka Guardiola’s teams) but it might seem you more direct and dynamic as it concentrates much more to verticality and opening up spaces in higher zones, consequently using a lot of long balls to reach the final third.

Napoli’s general lineup

Goalkeeper as a teammate

“Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean” (Juanma Lillo)

As Lillo says, having a proper initial structure to do the first pass under pressure and bring the ball out from our defensive third is a really important aspect of positional play. For creating a better shape in order to bypass the opponent’s first pressing line, defenders are never afraid to involve the goalkeeper, Pepe Reina to the circulation of the ball, therefore they have a free man in the initial phase of the build-up and probably a larger space the opponent has to cover. Reina shows a good ability of playing the ball accurately, thus forcing him to knock the ball in the air is more difficult than usually.

At this point Reina’s influence on Napoli’s pressing-resistance is obvious. The most common pattern he uses is a diagonal lofted ball to the full-backs pushing higher up. When being under pressure, Napoli use traditional fullbacks hugging the touchline in order to stretch the opponent’s defensive shape and even preparing overloads around the ball. Reina often makes a triangle or a chain of three with the centre-backs in order to create vertically as much space as possible. In summary he gives a really useful support to their teammates even in possession.

When Napoli aren’t pressed aggressively then one of the fullbacks takes a false full back-role , whilst the other one keeps his higher position, providing a lateral option for the ball-carrier. This is also interesting, how they manipulate the first line of pressure of the opponent. In order to prepare a side overload, they often switch the ball to LB, but in an unorthodox way: LB takes his initial position in the half-space, then as soon as ball has been switched to the other side, he starts to sprint diagonally towards the touchline. Therefore he gets the ball into space, becoming a classical full-back.

Switching the ball to the LB. He sprints diagonally, towards the touchline, becoming classical FB.

Vertical manipulation

This is the most interesting characteristic so far of Napoli’s way of playing football, and this is what really makes the difference between Guardiola’s  juego de posición and their interpretation . Especially against an opponent pressing higher up, a block with poor compactness or even against a man-oriented side, this type of positional play allows a good central progression, opening up spaces and vertical passing lanes in higher zones, mainly in the flanks and the half-spaces. Therefore we have seen some really interesting central combinations from Napoli.

They use a number of through balls upfront breaking through the last defensive line with a high amount of dynamism, consequently they have a vertical and more direct type of positional play. This interpretation of positional play definitely concentrates more to open up spaces in higher zones. All their approach could be called ‘vertical manipulation’ in order to reach dynamical superiority. At this point, Napoli’s looking for a third man is also a principal element, explained later.

The first thing which is the most important to mention, it’s something executed with the ball, and something which is typical Napoli. Against a more compact block, Skyblues’ have been consistently using vertical circulation. It means using purposed backwards passes, inviting the opponent to press, followed by a vertical pass into the space it has opened. Taking a deeper look at this concept, we can realize, that’s a similar thing like the one Guardiola desires, but it’s a method more  direct, which is adequate to open up spaces higher up quickly.

Napoli Vertical Circulation from Kristóf Bakos on Vimeo.

An other principal aspect when manipulating the opponent vertically is certainly the behavior of the positional structure itself. Napoli’s team shape shows a high amount of dynamism and flexibility when preparing the incision. The most common  combinations are:

  • needle movements
  • third man-runs

An effective way how they are capable to create spaces is the usage of needle movements, which is also related to their positional flexibility. Of course, these movements always have a vertical direction, for the same objective: pull out the defender, then run immediately into the space his movement has opened. This movement is much more than a simple cut into space as it’s an individual manner of vertical manipulation, providing a space which would be surely exploited. It’s important to have dynamical superiority as well. These movements might be also made collectively, by more players cutting behind the defensive line at the same time. Simple cutting movements are also used commonly, triggered by a vertical pass. Once they have opened up a passing lane higher up, two or three players immediately starts to run behind the opponents’ defensive line. These are the ways how Napoli’s positional play becomes so direct and vertical.

This kind of structural movements might easily harm the opponent’s defensive formation, but how to exploit these spaces they have opened up?Well, these movement combinations are regularly added with great third-man-run passing combinations. This passing pattern is really effective, as the third man who gets the ball is always looking for  spaces behind defensive line, therefore he becomes not just a free, but also a dynamic man.  Using these combinations, Napoli are able to destruct the opponent’s shape vertically and open up sea of spaces between the lines, explained above. Third-man-runs are mainly executed by a player next to the touchline(such as fullback or winger) and Hamsík in the left halfspace.

Typical Napoli. Insigne’s needle movement&Hamsík’s third-man-run against a man-orientated defence.

A more simple combination benefiting dynamical superiority is getting the ball into the flanks with a diagonal ball, right after a vertical pass has been executed.  Dribbling inside in a 1v1 situation and shooting from distance proved successful, we have been able to see this scheme especially in the left from Insigne. With this movement he might create central passing lanes as well.

Compactness around the ball

Local combination on the left side. Opening up the half-space for LCB.

For obvious reasons, Napoli’s vertical circulation has been worked the most effectively against teams with a weaker access to the ball, and opponents who apply pressure even in higher zones. If a team uses a passive type of pressing, it’s more difficult to pull them out, and vertically disrupt their defensive block. Napoli also have a solution against these sides:local combinations on the ball’s side.In order to use this weapon, they utilize the other important feature of their build-up mechanism: the great compactness of the attacking shape they can maintain. Napoli have

Overloading the right side, opening up the half-space for RW.

a really compact initial shape,with not so much distance between the furthest players. Having more players within a vertically smaller space makes possible a faster ball circulation , plus, forwards dropping deep might create dynamical superiority, explained later.Thanks to these great connections, Napoli can easily keep the ball during the phase of build-up, and with proper combinations, players can get themselves ready to open up spaces higher up and break through the last defensive line. During the build-up phase, Napoli’s most important positional guidelines as follows:

  • one of the FBs steps higher up
  • rotational movements of the midfielders
  • men between the opponent’s midfield and defensive line
Overloading the right side. RCM drifts wide, using the concept of triple width.

When a defender has the ball, he has three or even four(both vertical and diagonal) passing options thanks to the strong central occupation Napoli shows. When being under pressure, the higher position of the ball-sided FB is the most important as he provides a lateral option to the ball-carrier, preparing the side overload or running into space when overloading the centre. By means of this guidelines, Napoli certainly creates strong overloads in the strong side, forming triangles or diamonds. Having consistent numerical superiority in the zone of the ball helps them to progress in the strong side or even switch to the far side.  These overloads have been certainly added with dynamic movements, such as overlapping and underlapping runs, generally showed by FB and CM. It is advantageous for open up spaces on the flanks. Switching the ball to the weak side has been used just a few(if any) times, and rather executed from the right side to the left, favoring Insigne’s dribbling ability in 1v1 situations.

Against a block siting deep

As explained above, Napoli would rather take advantage from dynamical superiority than using 15 passes-rule, thus they use several combinations manipulating the opponent vertically, preparing an early through ball into the final third.Despite this concept,some situations has been definitely occurred, when they haven’t been able to avoid facing a deeper defensive block.

Although Hamsik and Callejón have been consistently showing a good positional intelligence concerning the occupation of half-spaces in situations like this, Napoli often nullified their own play with FB’s useless high crosses into a little space towards forwards cutting behind.We can say they generally failed to execute good combinations using the half-spaces and show an appropriate central presence, nevertheless, these factors would have been highly important.

Both LCM and RW runs into the half-space, but LB hits a bad aerial cross

Structural flexibility

This interpretation of positional play definitely requires a flexible positional structure as it is necessary to have consistent dynamical superiority.  As I’ve just presented in details, Napoli’s 4-3-3 offensive shape includes several positional movements. Fullback and winger in a certain side can frequently interchange their roles concerning the occupation of spaces. Three midfielders shows a good variability of space distribution and vertical direction of movements as well. This flexible structure provides an unpredictable spacing for Napoli, as well as dynamical superiority and a strong positional stability.

A diagram showing Napoli’s flexible positional structure.

Defensive system

Although the most impressive characteristic of Sarri’s side is their fancy attacking football, no team analysis could be imagined without analyzing the defensive system. Until now, Napoli have conceded 24 goals in 21 Serie A matches, which is not terribly much, but their defensive system has some obvious issues, which should be fixed in order to show a better later performance.

Out of possession,  Napoli plays in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation, which is easy to create from a 4-3-3 attacking shape. Sarri’s team always use zonal coverage, players are almost never working on their men. The defensive shape’s most common movement concerns the wingers’ task: the ball-sided one usually steps up higher, temporarily creating a 4-4-2. Their defensive line often sits high in order to press the opponents.

All these things sounds really great, but Napoli’s defensive system works nowhere near perfectly. This phenomenon might be not surprising, as lot of teams with a great attacking game has been showed weaker performance without the ball. In my opininon, it might have two reasons: first, talented attacking players are often less disciplined concerning their defensive responsibilities, secondly, spending a little time without the ball, a team will obviously have a weaker level of routine and synergy when executing defensive mechanisms.

Although their defensive shape has generally showed a proper vertical and horizontal compactness and a good usage of cover shadows, anyway they have also some defensive issues which caused them problems mainly within their shape, but it has harmed their vertical and horizontal compactness as well.  The main problem is the aggressiveness of their defensive system: they usually put a little pressure on the ball-carrier, therefore they have often failed many times to gain possession higher up against teams with a better positional play, such as Fiorentina and Milan. Of course, it might be something purposed, but in my opinion this defensive approach logically doesn’t fit to a possession game. Consequently I would rather consider it as a type of false pressing.

CF presses the ball-carrier in an uncoordinated way, plus LW steps up higher without any function. He doesn’t use his cover shadow properly, covering an irrelevant space.

There are also some problems due to forwards’ weaker defensive teamwork. Mertens often presses the ball-carrier in an uncoordinated way, which definitely leads to problems with the shape’s synergy. He has often made some mistakes when shifting to the ball’s side with his too slow shifting movement, not using properly his cover shadow. The other problem is Insigne’s movement. As mentioned above, he always steps higher up(Callejón as well) when the team is pressing on his side. The problem is that he has often retained this higher position even when the ball was in the centre, covering an irrelevant space.


However, they show a proper occupation of  spaces in lower zones, so it’s difficult to break through their deep block. During this phase of the game, they keep their 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 initial shape and they stay fully zone-orientated. Sometimes Callejón comes back deeper using a man-orientation, creating a situational 5-4-1,but it isn’t a consistent pattern as Callejón, Mertens and Insigne shows a weaker amount of defensive teamwork for obvious reasons. This is why they have often failed to force challenges next to the touchline, consequently, their strongest point during these situations is forcing ineffective crosses from the opponent.

A diagram showing Napoli’s theoretical defensive mechanisms

Who are the key players?

When analyzing a team’s game, it’s always an interesting question, who are the most important members of a machine working well, which players are the heartbeat of the team.  Napoli have a number of talented players in their squad. Reina is a keeper with a good ball-playing ability, as well-as the centre backs. They also have Hysaj and Ghoulam, two fullbacks having an extremely important role in attack. A perfectly strong triumvirate in the midfield, composed from tactically intelligent guys. Then, of course, three brilliant forwards, having a high amount of speed and technical abilities. But which guy is the most important member all of this side composed from eleven stars? When there is a plenty of strong players in a certain team, we should always search for the player who collectively has the most important role.

In Napoli, it should be one of the three midfielders without any doubt. It’s extremely difficult to decide whether it’s Jorginho, Hamsík or Allan, as tactical intelligence is the main strength all of them. Personally I would vote to Marek Hamsík. Without the ball, the Slovakian has an extremely important pivotal role: he provides a really strong supportive play in all phases of build-up mechanism, covering a huge part of the pitch with his movements. He also has  the required amount of speed to be useful in the final third.Of course, we mustn’t forget either his ball playing abilities: he has showed a great first touch when getting vertical passes,and he can easily turn with the ball in situations like this. Furthermore, he can safely get a vertical pass even if he is moving into a space higher up(theoretically a player should move towards the ball when getting the ball on his feet).

Hamsík has a number of received passes, his average helps to maintain a great connection on the left side.

Source: @11tegen11(Twitter)


Gli Azzurri show a really interesting interpretation of positional play with a high degree of collective synergy which has provoked several positive feedbacks from the analysts. The way how they play football is really quick and dynamic, this is why a lot of fans love to watch them as well. At the other hand, their playing style has some obvious disadvantages. They play with very risky long balls in the final third which might open up space for conceding counters and has generally led to several lost balls in the final third, as it’s technically difficult to execute this kind of key passes. They have been showing some defensive issues as well, which might be a serious problem in international games. In February, they will face Real Madrid, a strong side they have not faced for a long time. It’s an interesting question whether they will be able to knock them out(and probably, stronger teams) and have a better position than 3rd in the Serie A.



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