My intention for this article was to write an article around the Napoli Vs Genoa match from the weekend, as it turns out though my attention was taken by something other than the general ebb and flow of the match. While Napoli still won the match, deservedly so, it was not the manner of their victory that impressed but rather the way that they stuck to a particular tactical concept which is a key part of the way that Maurizio Sarri teaches his side to play, the insistence of playing between the lines of the opposition.
Over the course of the last two seasons under Sarri Napoli have been one of the most popular sides in European football mainly due to their attacking style of play. Whilst having a qualitative superiority in terms of playing staff over some other sides domestically will have played a part in this but in my opinion more important than this is the preference from Sarri for developing positional superiority over their opponents.
To simplify this Sarri sees the space on the field as the primary reference point for his side in the attacking phase as opposed to the position of the ball at any given time or even the position of the opposition. This is the key for Napoli in simplifying their attacking strategy and ensuring that regardless of the positioning or tactical setup of the opposition that they have the flexibility in the attacking phase to identify space or weaknesses in the oppositions defensive structure and perhaps more crucially to take advantage of these whether through a sudden overload or a ball played through a passing lane.
In using space as a primary reference when attacking Sarri essentially negates the variables that his team will face when playing against different opposing sides. Tactical system or preferences in terms of depth of defensive block or pressing triggers are not as important since Napoli attack in a fairly organic manner with a specific emphasis on playing between the lines of the oppositions midfield and attack. Napoli also alter their attacking structure depending on whether the ball is on the left or the right. On the left, the presence of Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne sees more interchanging of positions and quick interplay. Whilst on the right Jose Callejon plays tight to the touchline looking to make timed diagonal runs behind the opposition defensive line whilst Allan prefers to play in front of the line of opposition midfield instead of behind it. These specific differences make it difficult for an opponent to create a cohesive defensive structure against Napoli, the variation in attacking style from left to right gives the side from Naples the ability to choose different solutions in order to penetrate defensive blocks.
Somehow though the entire system just works, let’s take a more in-depth look at the concept of playing between the lines of play.
Here we see the starting formation from Genoa in this match. A 3-5-2 on paper with a single sitting midfielder. I have highlighted where we would expect to see spaces between the lines that Napoli could look to play between the lines. The most prominent is to either side of the single defensive midfielder.
The nature of the player profiles used by Genoa in this match meant that in between the attack and defence there would be space open for Napoli to play in, ideal for a player like Jorginho who thrives with time and space in these areas in order to create combinations of passes, neither of the front two for Genoa, Goran Pandev or Andrey Galabinov are capable of pressing for prolonged periods and will retain their higher positions instead of dropping in to close down the spaces between these lines.
That said the above graphic depicts a standard formation but as we know in game the positions of players within a defensive phase will be very different, this was indeed the case within this game as Genoa looked to drop back in to a deep defensive block in order to limit the space open for Napoli to operate in. Let us have a look at the spaces that Napoli can exploit when Genoa are sat in a deep block.
In the deep block spaces are limited in between the midfield and defensive lines. The two central midfielders have dropped back to flank the defensive midfielder, Genoa are still conceding space in front of their midfield line and they are willing to allow Napoli to play in these areas. The compact spacing in the final third however makes it difficult for Napoli to penetrate and move towards the penalty area.
As this particular match wore on Genoa found it increasingly difficult to transition effectively into their attacking phase. Direct passes up to Pandev or Galabinov stretched the play but a lack of support from the deeper players meant that Napoli were able to comfortably recover possession time and time again. In matches like this players like Jorginho are essential for Napoli with his ability to calmly distribute the ball and change the angle of the attack.
Jorginho is typically at the centre of every the action for Napoli in match after match. When teams like Genoa sit deep and try to frustrate Napoli then the attacking combinations and triangles that Napoli under Sarri are so famous for really come in to play.
The key when looking to create space between the lines against a deep defensive block lies in forcing the opposition to break their own positioning in order to create the space that you want to. There are a couple of different ways that you can do this but Napoli favour the use of rapid combinations of passes in front of the defensive block in order to provoke the opponents to press the ball and leave space in behind.
Here I have created an example of the way that Napoli look to provoke the press to create space. Jorginho plays the quick pass to the left sided central midfielder, typically Marek Hamsik, who then bounces the ball back to the left back. The initial press is designed to provoke the press as the opposition break position to close down Hamsik, As soon as the space is created there is a gap for Napoli to exploit. The next pass goes in to that space where players will flood in to take advantage.
The creation of these spaces in the heart of a defensive block is an extremely effective method of eventually breaking down a stubborn opponent, the key is patience as not every first line pass shown above will lead to an opponent pressing, Napoli, however, excel in playing with patience in front of the oppositions defensive block shifting the angle and depth of the ball in order to eventually gain the outcome that they want.
When they are able to find a space to exploit as above then Napoli are effective at building from this advanced platform. Playing from a platform in the final third between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition allows you to manipulate spaces in the defensive line and create overloads in order to break through into the penalty area. Napoli are excellent at this, especially when attacking on the left-hand side.
The reason that a simple match analysis turned in to this more theoretical piece is that I noticed Napoli looking to play between the lines again and again;
Above we see Marek Hamsik playing on the left of the central midfield in a pocket of space essentially between four Genoa players. As Koulibaly carries the ball out from the back he is able to play in to this platform from where Hamsik can then link to Mario Rui making the outside run of Lorenzo Insigne who is in a more advanced position on the same line.
In the initial periods of a match, the above is normal from Napoli. They manipulate space so well that the opposition can become stretched defensively as both sides try to assert dominance on the ball. The key for Hamsik when receiving the ball in this kind of position lies in the options that are then created for him in possession. With the left back immediately attacking the open left flank and with Insigne on the same line in a higher position there are immediate options for the ball to be shifted quickly, this further stretches and exposes the opposition defence.
The same players combine here with Koulibaly carrying the ball out from defence. This time however Hamsik has drifted behind the defensive line where a passing lane will allow him to receive the ball between the lines.
Once again here the most important thing is that once Hamsik receives the ball he is able to be productive. This time there is an immediate connection open with both Lorenzo Insigne on the outside and Dries Mertens on the inside in position to combine quickly with Hamsik and threaten the penalty area.
Lorenzo Insigne is this time the receiving player having moved in from the left flank in to a more central position. Once again he is in a pocket of space between four Genoa players with a clear passing lane to allow the man in possession to find him.
The interplay from the left-hand side can be important for Napoli in continually finding these spaces in which to play. With Lorenzo Insigne comfortable coming into the centre of the field it can be difficult for the opposition to effectively track the movements from Napoli players across the width of the final third, this, in turn, stretches the defensive block and opens space in which Sarri’s side can play.
Again, as soon as Insigne picks up possession of the ball he has passing lanes and angles open to shift it quickly in order to break through the defensive line.
Here we see Genoa in a passive block with Raul Albiol bringing the ball out from the back. There are options wide and across for the Spaniard but look at the position of Jorginho in between the lines centrally. When he takes possession of the ball the structure of the attack from Napoli means there are options. The first line pass to Zielinski or Mario Rui will shift the Genoa defence or the run from Dries Mertens, again between the lines, will provide an advanced platform to play from.
The importance of Jorginho to this team cannot be overstated, his ability to recognise and exploit space in deeper areas and to choose the ‘right’ pass time and time again are essential to the way that Napoli play. Some people accuse him of playing too many easy passes but more often than not these passes are designed to provoke the opponent and when the opportunity arises he plays forward incisively.
Napoli are an excellent example of a team that attacks through the thirds of the field opening spaces between the lines and exploiting spaces. Any match involving them at the moment will provide you with countless examples of the creation of space through movement and combination play. Hopefully, this piece will provide you with a little context now in terms of exactly what to look for next time you see this excellent side play.