Since Maurizio Sarri was appointed as head coach of Napoli in the summer of 2015 he’s overseen the transformation of a quite slow and laboured side into the most entertaining team to watch in Europe. This comes after he created a superb footballing side at Empoli where he won promotion to Serie A and then established the club in the top flight with a beautiful style of football. At Empoli and initially at Napoli, Sarri fielded a 4-3-1-2 formation with lots of short passing combinations and very compact positional defending. His current Napoli side plays out of a fluid 4-3-3 and are top scorers of Serie A with 94 goals in the league. This season they finished third behind Juventus and Roma but also recorded their highest ever point total. Here we take a look at his superb team and the style of football Sarri implements.
As mentioned above, Sarri sets his team up in a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder, two more attacking central midfielders and three forwards who play narrow to open up space for the full-backs, the left-back Faouzi Ghoulam in particular, to attack. His default eleven for Napoli this season has been:
Sarri strictly uses a positional defending side where the players adjust their positions based on the position of the ball and their teammates. There is minimal space between the respective lines of the team and opponents are forced wide with Napoli shutting down passing lanes centrally. This can be seen in the video below as the team move up, down and sideways in unison.
As you see, the team is very compact and in this example the opponents, Roma, are forced wide and the Napoli players continually adjust their positions. When one player goes to press, the others cover. The formation when defending deeper becomes 4-5-1 with the wingers dropping into the same line as the central midfielders.
Pressing in a 4-4-2
Napoli have been very efficient with their high-pressing this season, and when they press high up the pitch they change their shape as either a central midfielder or a winger leaves the midfield line to press alongside the centre forward.
In this example a central midfielder moves up with the defensive midfielder then moving into his position. It’s notable how the left winger, Insigne, stays inside to close off the central passing lane instead of going wider and thus blocks the attempted pass.
In this example it’s the right winger, Callejon, who steps up to press. When the high press is unsuccessful, he drops back into midfield to create a five-man midfield line.
And here we see it again firstly with Callejon and then Insigne pushing up to press. Also note how aggressively positioned the full-backs are on either side when Napoli press there to stop an easy escape down the sideline.
Napoli are superb in defensive transition. We’ll touch more on their attacking play below, but due to the immaculately positioned attacking shape they can quickly regain possession when they lose it with a rapid counterpress. In the video below they keep the ball for a long sequence, but when possession is lost they quickly sprint into pressing to win the ball back and start circulating it again. The closest players provide pressure and shut off the ball-carriers passing options.
Sarri is a strong advocate of positional play, and his way of implementing this style on his team has been fantastic to watch. Napoli constantly looks for the third man when in possession and are second to none in Europe when it comes to playing out of pressure. The players are so comfortable in Sarri’s playing-style that they never panic when pressed and use their quick passing combinations to find a free man to get out of the press.
They start already from the goalkeeper Pepe Reina who automatically becomes a free man in their build up. The centre-backs split and the full-backs pick up high positions in the build up. The defensive midfielder, Jorginho or Amadou Diawara, drops in between the centre-backs when needed but otherwise tend to position themselves behind the opponents first line of pressure to split the pressing players. If Napoli are shut down centrally, Reina can play a high lofted pass to either of the full-backs to get out of pressure.
Here we see a typical example of Napoli playing out from the back with their positional structure superbly allowing this attack to flow.
Here, Reina escapes Roma’s man-orientated pressing high up the pitch through his lofted pass to the right-back Elseid Hysaj. A few short passes later and Hamsik has become the free man behind Roma’s midfield line.
Short passing combinations to open up spaces
Sarri wants his team to use quick, short passing combinations to escape pressure in order to open up spaces to attack. This video is a perfect example of this. Hysaj has his back to goal and the opposition comes to press. A series of rapid, short, passing combinations sees Napoli escape the press and open up space for them to progress the attack by stabilising possession in another area of the pitch.
They are always looking for the third man to escape pressure and progress the play, and they do this superbly.
The purpose of third man runs and trying to find the third man is to create a situation where the opposition focuses on the ball-carrier and his closest teammate but forget about the third player making a run they can’t see. When this is concept is applied properly it’s extremely difficult to defend. In the video below we see how effective it can be against opponents who man-mark.
In this example, Hamsik is marked by his opponent and Napoli manages to create a goal by quickly passing the ball to the other side where the marking player starts ball-watching and Hamsik makes a third man run to get played in behind the defence. Superb football.
The goal of these short passing combinations is to manipulate pressure in order to open up the attractive spaces between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition for Napoli’s players to move into from where they can attack the oppositions defence.
This video is the perfect example of manipulating a press to open up space behind the midfield line with a series of vertical passes to attract pressure before Insigne gets played into the left half-space with the ball under control.
Find the free man between the lines – positional superiority
This is the ultimate goal of Napoli’s positional play and attacking style; get players behind the opposition’s midfield facing the defence and attacking that defence quickly. We’ve seen the short passing combinations they use when trying to create this space and when they get there they’re devastating. When they get players facing the defence they automatically create positional superiority, meaning the attacking players are in control over the defenders as they must react to the position of the ball and the attacker. This is the reason Napoli mostly build up down their left side where left-back Faouzi Ghoulam always keeps a high attacking position to maintain width and Insigne moves into the left half-space to combine with Hamsik. When Insigne or Hamsik face the defence from here, the right-back is in trouble as he must decide whether to stop the pass to Ghoulam down the side or stay centrally. If he stays centrally, Napoli will play the ball wide for a cross and if he goes wide the right centre-back have to step up which vacates a space in behind the defence for Napoli’s centre-forward to exploit. Napoli can manipulate the opposition from this position which is what makes it such an attractive space.
This is a perfect example. Hamsik becomes the free man between the lines to create positional superiority and the defenders push up which sees Dries Mertens attack the space behind them.
The deployment of Mertens as the centre-forward has seen Napoli’s attacking play improve immensely as he is very comfortable dropping into the space between the lines to create another potential passing option as a free man between the lines.
In the video below we see another exemplary passing move which sees both Insigne and Hamsik find free positions behind European champions Real Madrid’s midfield before unleashing Mertens behind the defence.
And another example from their game against Sassuolo, once again highlighting the positioning between the lines and the vertical passing to find these spaces.
There’s a lot of freedom in the way Sarri allows his players to move when it comes to finding these positions. If players stand still in these positions centrally or in either half-space then they will be easily picked up and defended but if they are constantly moving, it will be almost impossible to stop them.
Below we see how Hamsik and Mertens change positions in the build up play, just a quick example of the freedom the players can move with within Sarri’s system.
In the video below, we see an attack against a deep defence where Napoli quickly move the ball to finally find the free space between the lines from where to attack. Note the constant movement from each player to make themselves available for passes and to find the best possible space.
When the space appears, it goes very fast. Once again, always looking for the third man and we can clearly see Napoli’s possession structure with Ghoulam pushed high down the left, Insigne coming into the left half-space while Hysaj stays deeper on the right due to Callejon’s wider position.
Signature moves – Ghoulam cross and Insigne to Callejon
Sarri is a very methodical coach, and he’s installed a few signature moves within Napoli’s attacking play. I’ve already touched on the first one which comes from Napoli’s excellent use of the left half-space. With Insigne moving into this zone and the nearby positioning of Hamsik, Napoli often manages to overload this area in order to unleash Ghoulam down the left wing. The Algerian left-back then delivers perfectly weighted low crosses aimed behind the opponent’s defensive line where Mertens are looking to pounce.
The last video is probably the perfect example with Insigne and Mertens overloading the left half-space to open up the space wide for Ghoulam.
Another signature move is when Insigne comes inside with the ball and plays a diagonal cross towards the back post where Callejon attacks the ball. We see this in the following videos.
This is extremely effective since every defender will be looking at the ball-carrier Insigne. This means Callejon can make a penetrating blind side (out of the defenders immediate vision) run. This concept is also used by Napoli with other players, like this goal from Hamsik illustrates where every defender is watching the ball and loses Hamsik’s blind side run.
While not exactly a signature move, Napoli look to create their shots from low crosses more than anything. The reasons are simple, a low cross/pass is easier to finish as the ball is played on the ground and can often be finished using only one touch which gives the goalkeeper less time to react. As we’ve seen, these crosses can come from the wing but also from cutbacks or layoffs to improve the chances of the shot resulting in a goal. Look at these goals below and you’ll understand what I mean as this is definitely something Sarri works at.
While Napoli are one of the most possession-based teams in Europe, they are also extremely dangerous on the counter-attack. The physical profile of their three attackers Callejon, Mertens and Insigne with their pace, their understanding of when to run in behind the defence and their telepathic combination play are the main reasons behind their effectiveness on the counter. When defending deeper, huge spaces to attack appear, Napoli unleash their front three with a quick vertical pass and from there the counter moves like a Frecciarossa high-speed train. Enjoy.
Maurizio Sarri has created the most entertaining team in Europe with a clear identity and a style that is appreciated across the continent. His team play a quick, vertical style of positional play which is very difficult to defend against and with players like Mertens, Insigne, Hamsik and Callejon thriving under his tutelage his work is very impressive. With the young players such as Marko Rog, Amadou Diawara, Arkadiusz Milik and Zielinski signed recently, Sarri can really build something special at San Paolo if he stays for a long time. With the right investment in the summer the Scudetto will be the goal for next season and with the development and improvement we’ve seen in Napoli’s performances this season then Napoli looks the club most likely to break Juventus’ dominance of Italian football.