The most tactically rich match of the campaign could not go unnoticed here at Eat Sleep Drink Football. Maurizio Sarri’s perfectly synchronised Napoli battled Pep Guardiola’s monstrous Manchester CIty at the Etihad Stadium. Both teams have been basically walking their respective leagues. When speaking of possession-based systems, these 2 are easily the most superior in Europe. Both teams play attractive, attacking football involving rapid combinations and triangulation’s. The match was total footballing caviar for the sports analytics world.
Here is how both team’s lined up at the Etihad. Sarri vowed to leave underrated Jorginho on the bench, starting youngsters Diawara and Zielinski over the 2 Brazilians (Allan). The home side commenced with Delph as LB, performing the famous “inverted full-back” role. Up top, Sterling, Sane and Jesus. Club star Sergio Aguero watched from the bench.
Manchester City commenced the match imposing their style over Napoli. Since the initial minutes, City’s team looked dynamic, versatile, quick, smart, and synchronised. Not to say Napoli aren’t all those things, they were simply outplayed by City in the first 20 minutes.
Both teams constantly high-pressed their opponents in order to prevent them, or attempt to prevent them, to build up from deep. This resulted in a constant entertaining battle between greatly executed high presses and brilliant combination plays to beat such high presses.
City High Press and Napoli’s Strategy to Overcome It
City high pressed Napoli with more intensity in the first half. They were able to make the Serie A leaders uncomfortable on the ball. Since the beginning of the season, Guardiola has implemented a more direct high press, with quite innovative traits to it. Napoli, aimed to get out of tight spaces with quick combinations, before exploiting space with a penetrative pass.
Let’s take a closer look at how City high pressed in the initial minutes of the match, and what the Italians intended to do to overcome such press.
As shown, Guardiola likes to involve the opposite winger, in this case Sane, into his intense high presses. It helps cover the opposing centre back’s passing line. Gabriel Jesus’ body orientation, both when defending and attacking, is, to me, his most unique attribute. He always knows how to run either to create chances, make himself a scoring option, or press a rival. He plays a massive role in Guardiola’s high press. Sarri’s side struggled to crack down City’s high-press for most of the initial quarter of the match. However, their brilliant chemistry, along with their world class combination play’s, allowed them to challenge City’s press, and at times overcome it. In the clip above, we can see their strategy involved third man combination plays, to then exploit the space behind City’s high line. In the play above, tactics succeeded, however the accuracy of the execution failed.
Manchester City’s Electric Start
As mentioned, Pep Guardiola’s side began the match playing football from another world. They completely outplayed the ‘Napolitanos’, gaining a quick 2-0 lead. Let’s look at a move by move analysis of both goals.
City Positional Play in Opening Goal
As expected, City have quite mastered positional play. In the clip below, we can see the benefits of such, along with City’s main strategy with the ball to create chances.
The opening goal served as a perfect illustration of City’s positional complexity when the ball is in any part of the field. They are incredibly synchronised, and know what they want to do in nearly every situation. Notice how well balanced the team is: players in every line, central midfielders creating behind the opposition midfield, wingers providing width, and constant angled runs to create scoring opportunities from low crosses. With this strategy, City managed to open the score.
Benefits of Inverted Full-Back’s
Pep Guardiola has introduced inverted full-back roles to Manchester City. Many of the benefits can be seen in the last clip, with Delph switching the ball, connecting the team, and Walker nearly scoring in the box. The formation looks something like this:
It could be said that City play a 2-3-2-3 with the ball, with Delph and Fernandinho curiously playing centrally while Walker plays wider, yet not next to the line. He normally occupies the half-space. Without the ball, City occupy a 4-3-3, or a 4-5-1, depending on how deep their low-block is positioned.
The clip below will show how Fabian Delph precisely benefits City in the deep build-up stage of their possessions.
Fabian Delph serves as a central outlet to play out of the back, connecting the defence with the creating midfielders and the wide wingers. Basically, City depended on him and Fernandinho to transition the ball from the initial third into the middle third. Fabian is quite comfortable on the ball, and has proven brilliant when resisting press. The clip above is a perfect example as to why it is important to have an effective build-up. The quality of the chances up top directly increase when the ball is cleanly played from the back.
First Half Recap:
With these strategies, tactics, and game plan, City were able to tear Napoli apart during the initial 20 minutes of the match. After such a perfect start, City brought the pace down, and the rest of the first half had some chances for both, with no team being far superior to the other. The first half ended 2-0.
The second half had a more comfortable Napoli constantly finding ways to break away from City presses and mid-blocks. Ghoulam was huge in the second half for NAP, providing most of the wing-play down the left. Sarri’s attacking system involves the Algerian as a major chance creator with either deliveries into the box, runs to beat defenders, or vision to find players centrally. The “Napolitanos” were able to constantly find spaces behind the defence to create chances, although their finishing was nearly non-existent.
Here is a video explaining Napoli’s strategy to create chances against Manchester City:
As the video analysis explains, Napoli attack more down the left, considering all 3 players on that flank are extremely ball-playing. Most of their attacks against City during the second half involved either getting Ghoulam into positional or qualitative superiority, or quickly combining to switch the play either towards the box or the opposite wing. They were able to create a few chances that way, however their possessions were not enough to score from open play.
Napoli High Press City
Guardiola’s side had considerable difficulty playing the ball out of the back compared to the first half, and it was mostly due to Napoli’s incredibly timed high-presses.
Below, a video explanation of the Italian’s high-pressing strategy, and how it complicated City’s deep build-up’s and fancy combination plays in the initial third.
As the video illustrates, Napoli’s strategy was to press more intensely as the ball got closer to City’s goal, either man-marking, zonal-marking, or using body orientation to complicate the “Citizen’s” constant attempt to overcome these synchronised high-presses. Napoli snatched the ball off City players in their box, intercepted a pass in an ideal situation, and were able to create a (half) scoring opportunity. It was an effective way to both create chances and avoid City’s domination of possession.
City Overcome Napoli Intense High Press
The section above showed in great detail how Napoli managed to high-press City at the Etihad. This section will speak of the few times in the second half when City overcame the visitors presses.
This video explains City’s strategy when Napoli pressed them high up to pitch.
Relying on Walker as the player to transition from one half to the other through the wings was quite effective at times. Ghoulam often defended as Sarri usually wants, which is with a compact line of 4, leaving Walker to Insigne or Zielinski. Guardiola adapted his tactics to exploit that space constantly left in front of Walker.
Second Half Recap:
Napoli were able to get one back through a penalty kick converted by Diawara. Ghoulam performed an impeccable individual effort from the wing on towards the box and was brought down by Guardiola’s men. The match ended 2-1, with both teams enjoying nearly 35 minutes of domination over the other, with the remaining minutes resulting in pure entertaining football from both sides.
These two pass maps provided by @Ben8t can confirm many things explained in the video-analysis.
For starters, the shape is nearly identical to the formation in the section Benefits of Inverted Full-backs, with Kevin de Bruyne having a slightly more advanced role. This pass map confirms City’s incredibly organized side, with both wings getting nearly as much ball circulation as the other, and many players having at least 3 lines of 6 or more passes towards other teammates. The map also shows how Walker plays wider than Delph, and how Gabriel Jesus participated very little in possession play, but rather with intelligent runs to create danger for his team.
Compared to City’s, this pass map shows an evident favouritism for build-up down the left. Guardiola’s side to a good job at creating combinations and chances from nearly anywhere around the pitch, while Napoli are just excellent at creating down the left and centrally. Ghoulam, Hamsik, Koulibably, and Diawara all carried Napoli’s possessions. Had Joringho been on the field, the Italian would have been in charge of orchestrating the visitor’s possessions.
Manchestery City versus Napoli was one of the tactically richest matches I have seen in my life. Every move seem perfectly synchronised, planned, and thought. Both managers did not fail to entertain fans from both sides, as well as neutrals. Both sides remain playing beautiful football, with great combination plays, scoring versatility, and effective high-presses. Hence, why both are respective leaders in their leagues.