Whilst last weekend saw the opening round of fixtures in the English Premier League this week saw the rest of the major leagues around Europe begin their domestic campaigns. In Italy the big news over the summer has surrounded the investment made by AC Milan under their new ownership with the nucleus of a completely new team signed for Vincenzo Montella’s side. Further south, however, there is a sense of continuity and even quiet confidence in Naples as coach Maurizio Sarri begins his third season in charge at Napoli with largely the same squad as last season, indeed wide forward Adam Ounas who signed from Bordeaux is the only significant signing.
Napoli came into this match away to Hellas Verona on the back of a comfortable if somewhat underwhelming 2-0 victory in the 3rd round of Champions League qualification at home to Nice of France. The benefits however of having a settled starting eleven, Ounas began the match on the bench, is that there is less work to do in the pre-season in terms of installing your specific tactical gameplan.
Instead we saw Napoli adopt their very familiar 4-3-3 shape throughout the match with the focus very much on building up and playing through the centre of the field with Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski in particular impressing.
The 4-3-3 from Sarri under Napoli provides very little in the way of surprises. The two centre backs and the defensive midfielder, Amadou Diawara, form a defensive triangle in the centre of the pitch. This also serves as the basis for Napoli to build their attack through the defensive third. The two central defenders Kalidou Koulibaly and Vlad Chiriches are both adept at playing out from the back.
Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski are the brains of the team moving into the final third whilst Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon move in and occupy the half spaces in the attacking phase allowing Hysaj and Ghoulam to attack down the wide areas.
Verona defensive structure
Whilst Sarri and Napoli are now very well-known throughout European and even World football there is less known about Verona and their coach Fabio Pecchia although it was a relatively safe assumption that they would not start the season with an open style of play against this Napoli side.
Indeed Verona lined up in a static 4-4-2 system with Alessio Cerci playing as the most advanced forward and Daniel Bessa dropping into a slightly withdrawn role.
Whenever Napoli were in possession of the ball we saw Verona drop into a deep, passive, block to try to negate the space in the final third that Napoli usually look to exploit. This, of course, had an unintended secondary effect as there was no out ball in to advanced areas when Verona did win the ball back, as such the game descended into long periods of Napoli pressure.
Here you can clearly see the deep defensive block from Verona. They are set up in two banks of four with the two strikers sitting just ahead of them.
Spaces are limited either in between the individual lines horizontally or in between the sets of lines vertically. As such Napoli were limited initially to spells of possession ahead of the defensive structure or attempting quick switches of play to isolate their attacking full backs in wide positions.
Once again here we can see the compact defensive structure from Verona although this time the second striker has dropped deep to support the defensive effort. As you can see Verona have won possession back but there is no passing outlet to allow them to safely move the ball up the field.
For the entirety of the match, it was difficult for Verona to build any sustained attacking moves given their defensive mentality, in the end, however, Napoli were able to breakthrough with relative ease.
Napoli structure in the final third
How then did Napoli succeed in breaking down this deep defensive block on their way to a 3-1 win? The key as always with this side under Sarri lay in part with their ability to form attacking structures in the final third. For long periods of the match, Napoli would have possession and be looking to move the ball quickly in triangles to try to move the Verona defensive structure around and create space to play through.
Here I have captured an example of the attacking structure for Napoli as they move into the final third of the field. The first thing to note is that the midfield line for Verona has been pulled out of shape and become staggered, this staggered shape offers the chance for Napoli to play the ball through the line of pressure relatively easily.
The spacing of the Napoli players on the ball near side of the field is excellent with each man always having at least two passing options when they take possession of the ball. We have Ghoulam in the wide area and Diawara supporting the play as the deepest player, otherwise the other four players in support are relatively interchangeable with Zielinski, Hamsik, Insigne and Milik offering options.
It is also important to note that should they switch the ball out to the right-hand side they have a player in space that will be isolated against a single defender when in possession.
Here the man in possession centrally for Napoli has five passing options arrayed at various depths of the field. Whilst the midfield line for Verona is less staggered there are two Napoli players who are positioned dangerously between the midfield and defensive lines.
With the two horizontal close passes for the man in possession, there are easy options to quickly shift the ball to change the angle of the attacking movement. In doing so they then create opportunities for passing lanes to open up through the defensive structure of the opposition.
This passing map was created by the excellent @11tegen11 using Opta data. As you can see the key connection in the final third was that between Hamsik and Insigne on the left-hand side of the field, this is a clear bias from Napoli as they look to access the final third of the field via their two key attacking players.
Napoli play through the lines
With Verona sitting in a deep block and Napoli utilising their attacking structure in the final third to create space to play through there still needed to be a method for Napoli to finally play through the lines of Verona pressure into dangerous situations.
Often we would see Napoli looking to utilise an attacking concept known simply as ‘up, back and through’ where the ball is played forward before being set back and then finally played through into the more advanced areas of the field.
Here we see Napoli originally building their attack from the defensive third of the field with Kalid Koulibaly in possession. Verona are slightly higher than we would normally have seen them in this match and immediately they see the opportunity to play through into advanced areas.
The first pass goes through the forward line to Zielinski in the midfield before it is immediately set back to Diawara, he in turn then plays the ball through again past the midfield line of pressure and finds Callejon in space in a more advanced area.
This time Napoli are in the middle third of the field looking to access the final third with the Verona midfield trying to apply pressure. With Diawara in possession, he is confident enough in possession of the ball to drill a vertical pass into the feet of Arkadiusz Milik who immediately looks to set the ball back to Marek Hamsik who is in space behind the midfield line for Verona.
Hamsik is then able to immediately play the ball through into the final third of the field finding Lorenzo Insigne in space in the wide area.
A largely satisfying first league match of the season for Sarri and Napoli, although Verona showed little to suggest that they may be able to comfortably avoid relegation this season.
This expected goals graph was created by @11tegen11 using Opta data. As you can see the expected goals for the match are closer than may have been expected at 2.43 to 1.39 in Napoli’s favour. As you can see however Verona had a large increase past the 80th minute when the Napoli right back Hysaj was dismissed for a second bookable offence and Verona were able to pull a goal back.
We saw enough of Napoli going forward with the way that they build support structures and bypass lines of pressure to suggest that this will be another season that sees the side from the South of Italy challenging at the end of the season for the Scudetto.