The Serie A is the only European top-league in which the title race is still open and exciting. The difference between Napoli and Juventus is only one point and both teams have to win every week to put pressure on the other team.
Last weekend Napoli faced Lazio Rom at home. Lazio is a team with a well-structured defence which can cause problems because with Immobile they also have a very dangerous striker. In the first half Napoli struggled to create chances but by playing quicker and using Lazio´s weaknesses they could secure their 4:1 home win in the second half and therefore are still top of the league.
Napoli struggled almost the whole first half with Lazio’s defence. After two minutes de Vrij put Lazio in front and from that on the club from the capital of Italy could focus on defending the lead. Napoli really struggled to combinate in their usual manner. They created almost no chances because Lazio closed the middle and disrupted Napoli’s rhythm in possession.
Lazio´s pressing in the first half was extremely man-oriented. While Napoli was in possession, Lazio tried to hold the middle as compact as possible by using a 5-2-1-2 which could switch to a 3-4-1-2 depending on the situation and the positions Napoli’s players occupied.
During Napoli’s incredible run this season Jorginho is one of the most important players in Napoli´s combination play. The Italian national-team player structures the possession game. He is the focused player during their build-up phase and also to switch sides when they try to break through the opponent´s defence. Because of the importance of Jorginho, Simone Inzaghi decided to put a marker on Jorginho to reduce his influence. That´s why Milinkovic positioned higher almost the whole first half. Milinkovic was the man who has the guard Jorginho and applied pressure when Jorginho received the ball.
Furthermore, Lazio’s two strikers tried to cut the passing lines to Jorginho while forcing Koulibaly and Tonelli to play the ball towards the wing. Usually, Lazio settled deeper near the halfway line. Most of the time they didn’t press aggressively, so the strikers only tried to deny passes in the centre.
In the picture above, you can observe how Lazio tried to shut down Napoli’s combination play. Milinkovic follows Jorginho while Immobile has access to the ball and therefore tries to push Koulibaly towards the wing.
Behind Milinkovic and the strikers, Parolo and Lucas Leiva had a flexible role. While the ball-near player also followed an opponent, the other covered the space in the centre. However, Parolo regularly pushed towards the wing to press Rui because Hamsik, his natural opponent, would take a higher position. Those man-orientations where quite strict. In the example above, Napoli tried to use the grey marked space. To free Insigne they tried to force Lazio out of position by using vertical movements. However, Wallace and Parolo both left their position in order to track their opponent. In the end, Insigne couldn´t turn after receiving the ball because Wallace applied pressure immediately.
The position of Lazio’s wingbacks differed from situation to situation depending on the position of Callejon and Insigne. For instance, when Napoli’s wingers positioned extremely wide Lulic and Marusic settled deeper in order to help the centre-backs. Because if the centre-backs would have followed Napoli’s wingers they would have opened to much space in the middle.
However, if only one winger of Napoli stayed wider on the ball near side the ball-near wingback could push higher and press the opposing fullback. Then the halfback of the back-three pressed the winger while the ball-far wingback secured the space together with the other two centre-backs. But, the pressing of the fullbacks of Napoli was flexible, sometimes Parolo pushed towards the wing, mostly when Hamsik pushed higher so Parolo had no opponent to mark. In other situations, Napoli’s fullbacks received space because Lazio prioritised to cover the central spaces.
Besides, their common strategy to close the middle while settling deeper, Lazio occasionally tried to close down Napoli higher up the pitch in order to disrupt Napoli’s build-up and force them to quicker less structured w
In order to achieve that they used an even more man-oriented approach. Here Pepe Reina has the ball at his feet. The strikers closed the centre-backs down while the three midfielders of Lazio followed Jorginho, Allan and Hamsik to deny any passes to them. Pepe Reina has only two options in this situation. Play the long ball or try to get the ball to the fullbacks who have space to advance into midfield.
How Napoli tried to overcome the pressing
Especially in the first half, Napoli struggled to overcome the compact defensive shape and had problems with the man-oriented pressing approach of Lazio. Because of the high pressing of Lazio, Napoli’s build-up got interrupted. Therefore, the positioning of their players during the first half of their attacks was not accurate enough, so they lacked passing speed and movements to open space.
In the first half, they regularly used the space Lazio gave their fullbacks. Mario Rui and Hysai often dribbled with the ball on their side, however, they could rarely advance into higher more dangerous zones.
Besides the dribbling´s of their fullbacks Napoli used they common movement without the ball to open space for Insigne and Hamsik to turn and face the opponent goal with the ball, like in the scene above Lazio was often capable of defending that, because their defensive shape was compact enough and Napoli had only a few players between the lines.
What worked quite well were the chip-passes behind Lazio´s last defensive line. Lazio´s centre-backs struggled to defend those because their positioning was often inaccurate. Consequently, Callejon scored the equaliser after a long pass played by Jorginho behind the defence of Lazio.
In the second half Napoli dominated the game, as usual, this season. Lazio settled deeper and played with fewer man-orientations. Milinkovic often played next to Parolo and Lucas Leiva which gave Jorginho more space to operate. In the first half, Lazio´s pressing was passive, they rarely applied real pressure on the ball carrier and concentrated more on making the space tight and take away all possible passing options. In the second half they had even fewer access to the ball. But couldn´t defend all dangerous situations, because their timing of applying pressure was worse than in the first half.
Because of the space for Jorginho and the deeper defensive shape, Napoli was able to quickly switch sides and use the space Lazio gave them in the ball-far halfspace. Furthermore, with Piotr Zielinski who replaced Hamsik Napoli had a player who was very active and secured the ball well in tight spaces. All in all, their midfield players positioned higher quite often between the midfielders of Lazio while Insigne, Mertens and Callejon moved between Lazio´s defensive line and their midfielders, with quick sprints they pushed the defence back and created space between the lines.
In this situation Insigne, Mertens and Callejon positioned near the Lazio defenders while Jorginho’s higher role helped Napoli to overload the left flank with Zielinski and Rui, consequently, they could play the ball to Jorginho in the halfspace who didn’t get pressured immediately. Quite impressive were the off-ball movements to open space. Insigne moved outwards, so Wallace had to move one step with him, hence he opened the passing line.
Mertens quick drop into the ten-space made de Vrij pushing out of position which made the grey space reachable for Jorginho. Also, the movement of Zielinski into the half space gave Jorginho more time because Marusic and Parolo had to communicate who should pick up Zielinski. In the end, Callejon used a perfect timed blind-side run to get into the grey space, Jorginho’s perfect passes collapsed Lazio´s defence. The situation resulted in a big chance for Insigne which got defended perfectly.
As I mentioned Napoli’s positioning was far better in the second half which led to situations in which they could draw Lazio out of position and create superior situations, either numerical or positional.
Again Lazio’s pressing is too passive, Koulibaly can advance with the ball. Again, he had too much time on the ball, furthermore, Napoli’s off-ball movements drew Lazio out of position. Here Insigne moved diagonally into the half space and forced Parolo to move with Insigne, if Parolo wouldn’t have followed Insigne, he would be free between the lines and reachable for Koulibaly, however, Parolo’s movement opened the passing line to Zielinski, who was completely free because Marusic covered Rui.
In the second half Napoli often used the fact that the halfbacks of Lazio’s back three could be easily forced out of position by positioning wider. Because of the man-oriented approach of Lazio and Napoli’s higher fullbacks. Here Wallace had to press Zielinski, but he didn’t push out of position far enough to reach Zielinski, consequently the polish talent had time to turn and could attack the defence. Wallace positioning was so bad because he couldn’t press Zielinski nor covered the space because Insigne could use the opened space in the half space which gave Napoli the opportunity to get access to the middle.
Another example of the problems Lazio faced in the second half with their back-three was obvious before the second goal of Napoli. Because of the higher positioning of Napoli’s midfielders, Lazio´s central midfielder’s couldn’t help de Vrij when Mertens received the ball in the ten-space, de Vrij’s timing was not perfect so Mertens could pass the ball to Callejon on the right side who had space to cross the ball in, Wallace on-goal was the consequence. Again, the wider and higher position of Callejon and Insigne stretched Lazio’s back-three and lead them to uncomfortable 1v1 situations like Insigne vs Wallace which was a clear advantage for Napoli.
Lazio played a strong first half especially their defensive shape looked compact and it was hard for Napoli to find a way through it. In addition to their well-structured defensive shape, they were able to disrupt Napoli’s build-up because of their high man-oriented closing of passing options. However, Lazio´s pressing lacked intensity and was sometimes too man-oriented. Napoli could use those weaknesses by moving the ball quicker in the second half and taking more risks by pushing their fullbacks and midfielders higher. Ultimately, they benefited from positional mistakes of Lazio’s defenders and the fact that Milinkovic stopped covering Jorginho in the second half which gave Jorginho more space and therefore he was able to structure Napoli´s possession game easier.