Round 28 of Serie A produced one of the most enthralling storylines of the season. Title hopefuls Napoli had lost their previous game 4-2 at home to Roma, giving Juventus the opportunity to climb into top spot if they won their next game. Juventus promptly took that opportunity by beating Udinese 2-0 at home prior to Napoli’s fixture against Internazionale. This forced a situation in which Napoli would have to gain all 3 points against Luciano Spalleti’s side if they wanted to regain pole position. The match subsequently ended in a 0-0 draw, which meant that Napoli fell one point behind Juventus on the Serie A standings, with the current champions holding an extra game in hand. The disappointing result for Maurizio Sarri’s men meant that they suffered a huge blow in their quest for a first Scudetto in nearly 30 years. However, the match itself proved to be quite entertaining from a tactical perspective because of an extraordinary defensive performance by Inter, who currently lie in 5th place.
Napoli denied access into crucial attacking zones
Despite the aforementioned 4-2 loss to Roma, Napoli have ripped Serie A defences apart with their intelligent passing patterns and ruthless exploitation of open spaces this season. From the build-up phase all the way into advanced zones they’ve mastered the art of drawing defences towards the ball, creating open spaces in other zones, before using the open space to progress further upfield. Inter, however, took a different approach that required clever and coordinated defensive movements, as well as lots of running and concentration.
Throughout game, Inter defended zonally while blocking passing lanes into players positioned in behind the midfield lines simultaneously. Instead of man-marking Napoli’s players or simply defending zones and pressing players who entered those zones, they focused on preventing the ball’s progression into these zones.
Napoli typically play sideways or backwards passes to open up space in between the lines, horizontally or vertically. Against Inter they struggled to do so because Inter refrained from chasing the ball and instead focused on maintaining a tight structure between their midfield and defensive lines. In doing so Napoli couldn’t find the space to combine and create chances. Even when they did manage to play the ball into these areas, the recipient, usually Mertens or Insigne, was often isolated or Napoli would find themselves outnumbered and eventually they would lose possession. The only area where they were afforded space, was out wide. From out wide though, Inter were able to easily squeeze them towards the touchline.
Spalleti’s use of Icardi and Rafinha was also key to disrupting Napoli’s circulation and progression into the final 3rd. Rafinha was tasked with shadowing Jorginho in order to prevent him from receiving the ball in behind Icardi. Icardi meanwhile provided a cover shadow that discouraged any Napoli player from switching the ball to the opposite flank directly. This meant that if they wanted to switch play they couldn’t use Jorginho as a link, and Icardi’s positioning made straightforward switches very risky.
Napoli had to use their centre-backs when switching play and this resulted in a very predictable circulation pattern, which also allowed Inter the time to shift according to the ball’s positioning. There were numerous occasions in which Icardi or Rafinha failed to carry out their task, giving Napoli the chance to rapidly switch play or allowing them to overload their opponents when Jorginho was unmarked. But in the end, they performed their defensive duties well enough for the majority of the game, helping Inter to nullify Napoli’s very effective ball circulation. There were other instances, which saw Allan occupying Jorginho’s position but yet again, Inter’s focus on their compact structure rendered Napoli’s rotations ineffective.
One potential solution that Sarri should’ve considered earlier in the game was to play Milik at centre-forward in order to optimize the little space they had out wide to put crosses into the box (Milik, however, was only introduced 5 minutes before full time). Whether it would’ve worked or not is a different story as Inter showed with their dismal attacking performance.
Inter’s opportunistic attacking approach:
With Napoli expected to dominate possession, Luciano Spalletti set his side up to take advantage of Napoli’s disorganization on the counter. Nevertheless, they still played out from the back after goal kicks or upon regaining possession in a situation where Napoli had all their players behind the ball. There were two different ways in which they executed their build-up, that both depended on the positioning of Napoli’s players. However, both approaches were based on the idea that they would break forward as fast as possible if they were in space higher up the pitch.
Napoli defended using an option-oriented zonal marking system (also)with the aim of preventing the ball’s progression from as high up the field as possible. Their 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 shape gave them numerical superiority in midfield, but more crucially, the hosts lacked connections between their players which weakened their ability to play out from the back effectively.
During the build-up, their centrebacks would split to the edges of the box whilst the fullbacks Cancelo and D’Ambrosio would push high and wide. With only Brozovic and Gagliardini positioned in the midfield(the front 4 were positioned near the halfway line), Inter often put themselves in a risky 6v6 situation near their own goal. Napoli regained possession on several occasions because of Inter’s sub-standard build-up play.
On a few occasions, Inter managed to lure Napoli towards the ball, which opened up gaps between their midfield and defensive line. Napoli would gain access to the ball but their midfield line wouldn’t be positioned appropriately to maintain their compactness. Handanovic used these gaps to play long passes into Icardi, Inter’s attacking focal point, as well as Perisic out on the left flank who had an aerial advantage over Hysaj. They would then break forward at pace and looked to get the ball into crossing positions in order to set up Icardi inside the box.
This method of attack sounds logical but it was very opportunistic as it relied on Napoli losing compactness between their defence and midfield which didn’t happen too often. Napoli also managed to recover and slow down Inter’s quick breaks which meant that more often than not their attack broke down in critical moments. The images below depict how Inter broke forward successfully on one occasion after Napoli lost their shape while pressing.
They also pressed Napoli in advanced positions with the intention of winning possession and immediately counter-attacking. Fortunately for Napoli, their first phase of play was well executed. Also, Inter’s midfielders were reluctant to move forward as it would’ve created a disconnection with their defence. This allowed the visitors to easily play the ball around Inter’s pressing players because of their lack of support. In the event that the midfielders did support their forwards and Inter gained full access to the ball during a press, Napoli not only had an extra man with Pepe Reina, but Reina (like Handanovic) was able to play passes into the open space between Inter’s defensive and midfield lines.
In what proved to be a very watchable tactical battle, Napoli struggled to find solutions to Inter’s solid defensive performance. Spalletti deserves credit for recognizing how effective a tight and coordinated unit could be against one of the most unpredictable attacking sides in the world right now. Both teams did well to prevent their opponents’ progression by blocking passing lanes but ultimately Inter never looked like threatening when in possession. The hosts would’ve been pleased to have kept a clean sheet as Napoli had already scored 62 goals in Serie A prior to kickoff. Maurizio Sarri and co. however, would’ve left the San Siro with their hands in their heads after receiving yet another setback in their title chase.