This season under coach Maurizio Sarri Napoli have been one of the most open and watchable sides in Europe. They play a brand of exciting and attacking football that flies in the face of those who still believe the stereotype of Serie A as a purely defensive league. That they sit in third place in the Serie A table is indicative of the quality of the sides ahead of them with Juventus continually proving themselves to be amongst the best sides in Europe and Roma constantly improving.
That said though the side from the South of Italy are strongly positioned in the race to qualify for next seasons Champions League. Their opponents in this match Internazionale of Milan have stabilised somewhat over recent months following the dismissal of Dutch coach Frank De Boer and the appointment of Stefano Pioli. That said it will still be a stretch for the side to qualify next season for European football.
Under Pioli the general style of play of Inter has improved greatly from the slow and cumbersome style of De Boer to a more modern style of play. Pioli favours a compact attacking system with Inter playing more vertically and looking to break through the lines of the opposition defensive structure. Whether that style would be successful against a Napoli side that play a highly structured and successful defensive style of their own would remain to be seen.
The only notable absence from the Inter side going in to this match was the Croatian international winger Ivan Perisic who lost his place to the more direct attacking style of Eder playing from the left but drifting centrally to support the Argentinian striker Mauro Icardi.
Otherwise this team all but picks itself with Roberto Gagliardini having firmly established himself as a first team player following his January move from Atalanta.
The most significant piece of team news from Napoli saw the selection of the Polish international Piotr Zielinski on the right of the central midfield three mirroring the attacking movements of Marek Hamsik on the left hand side.
Napoli defensive structure
One of the most impressive things about the way that Napoli played in this match was the way that they shifted between defensive concepts as the match developed. Whilst it is not fair to call them passive in the defensive phase they do not press in a high block for long periods of the match.
Instead we saw Napoli adopt a bend but do not break approach in the defensive phase with the player nearest the ball moving out of the structure to cut off potential passing angles for the Inter player in possession. The aim from the Napoli gameplan was to force Inter to continually move backwards in possession and force them to try a direct pass which could be easily broken up.
In this example taken from the first half of the game we see Inter being proactive in their attacking approach with the first two passes being vertical breaking the Napoli lines and giving Inter an advanced line to play from.
As they initially play in to the Napoli half we see the block from Napoli move to cut off passing lines and force Inter back. Eventually Inter are able to access the final third with a direct pass allowing them down their left flank but again the Napoli defensive unit are compact and intelligently positioned and the ball is easily cleared.
On this occasion as Inter advance in possession of the ball we see Napoli drop back in to a compact unit in their own half of the field. With Napoli already a goal to the good the onus is very much on Inter to chase the game and force a breakthrough.
As Inter move in to the Napoli half we see the away team start to engage tentatively with the ball cutting off the opportunity for Inter to access the final third. As the Napoli forward applies pressure Inter are left to try the direct route with the ball being played over the top and intercepted easily.
This ability to shift blocks from high to medium to low combined with the workrate of the Napoli defenders as they cut off passing angles made if very difficult for Inter to fashion any real chances in this match.
Napoli play through tight spaces
One of the most interesting aspects of the game from Napoli is their ability to play combinations through tight spaces especially through the middle third of the pitch.
They possess a number of players who are especially comfortable when taking possession of the ball under pressure from the opposition. They are also able to manipulate the positioning of their opponents through clever shifting of the ball through different angles as they look to create space for their teammates in between the defensive block.
Here we see Napoli attacking down the left hand side of the pitch, the left hand side is by far the most used in the attacking phase by Napoli with Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne being key players as they transition from defence to attack.
In the video we see Insigne initially driving with the ball before cutting back and laying the pass off. It is at this moment that we seen him drift from the left side to the central areas essentially emptying the wide space and allowing a teammate to move in to that pocket of space.
As Napoli shift the ball quickly in the close area we eventually see the play develop to have four Napoli players closely aligned and challenged by four Inter players.
Because the defensive players have been pulled in and because Insigne created space in the wide area it is relatively easy for Napoli to then capitalise on the space in the wide area and shift the ball out wide in order to get around the Inter defensive block.
Here again we see an example in this static image of the way that Napoli use movement and interplay in order to create space for one another moving in to the final third.
Insigne is as he is so often the instigator of the play as he drives in to the centre of the pitch whilst in possession of the ball. As he moves in he is followed closely by a defensive player and as Insigne plays the ball off he continues his run in to the advanced area continuing to pull the defender with him.
This movement from Insigne in finishing off his run creates space for the ball then to be played back over to the left had side where Marek Hamsik finds himself in a significant pocket of space.
Napoli attack down the left hand side
As a general rule under Sarri Napoli tend to favour building their attacking play down the left hand side of the pitch. As mentioned previously the presence of Napoli’s two most potent attacking weapons in Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne on this side make this an obvious attacking route. That does not however mean that the opposition are able to stop this attacking trend.
The flexibility of Insigne in particular is key as he moves seamlessly from the left side to the left half space and in to the central area of the field, this in turn creates space for the likes of Ghoulam at left back and Hamsik to move in and take advantage.
Here we see an example of that rotation taking place in this match. Kalidou Koulibaly is in possession taking the ball out of defence and the first player to show for a pass is Marek Hamsik, The Slovakian international plays the ball immediately out to the left hand side and then makes a run wide to the left hand side to offer an advanced option.
As Hamsik clears out the half space however we see Insigne move in to the space to take possession of the ball again.
These rotations of man and ball make it difficult for the opposition defensive structure to adequately defend against the Napoli attack.
Here again we see the speed that Napoli break the lines of the Inter defensive structure as they attack through the left hand half space.
Once again the move is instigated by Kalidou Koulibaly as he steps out in possession of the ball before playing the ball through to Marek Hamsik in a more advanced position. The Slovakian international then immediately turns and plays the pass through the defensive line for Lorenzo Insigne to run on to.
In the end the 1-0 victory for Napoli flattered Inter as the home side failed to create any clear cut openings as Napoli defended well and shut down the opportunities for Inter to play through their defensive structure.
Once again the attacking strength of the team from Naples proved the difference between the two teams as the interplay down the left hand side from Napoli proved too difficult to stop.
Once again we should see this Napoli side qualify for the Champions League but it remains to be seen whether they can take the next step and challenge for the Serie A title.