UEFA Champions League 2018/19: How Napoli’s back three aided victory against Liverpool
Group C in this season’s Champions League features two of the tournament favourites in French Champions Paris Saint-Germain and last year’s beaten finalists Liverpool. It’s an uphill task for Serie A’s runner-up and biggest entertainers from last season, Napoli to qualify from the group and an opening game 0-0 draw with group minnows Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) was certainly not welcome.
But ahead of their home fixture against the English side, Napoli knew that a win against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool would put them firmly back on track to qualify for the knock-out rounds. Liverpool sat top of Group C after the first round of games, having beaten PSG 3-2 at Anfield and as well as being front-runners in the budding Premier League season, the Reds have had a fantastic start to their 2018/19 campaign.
Despite sitting second in the Serie A table, Napoli have had an indifferent start to their new season. Carlo Ancelotti took over as manager of the Partenopei after the departure of Maurizio Sarri, a man who made Napoli many football fans’ second favourite team in his three-year tenure at the Stadio San Paolo. Results have been overall acceptable for Gli Azzurri under Ancelotti but performances have been questionable as Napoli’s style is naturally evolving under new leadership. This matchup against a European heavyweight would be a firm test of Napoli’s standing in Group C’s pecking order.
To nobody’s surprise, Jürgen Klopp set his Liverpool side up in their typical 4-3-3 shape, featuring that world-class forward trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firminho and Mo Salah, who collectively have 10 goals and 3 assists between them in all competitions this season. Dutch internationals Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk are pivotal at the base of midfield and at the heart of the back-four respectively for this Liverpool side.
From the team news, the common assumption was that Carlo Ancelotti has set this Napoli team up in their familiar 4-3-3 with a front three of Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and José Callejón. Mario Rui and Milinkovic were likely filling both full-back spots while Hasmik filled a deep-lying playmaker role vacated by Jorginho since his summer move to Chelsea. However, the early passages of play would show unusual yet very interesting team shapes for the Partenopei as Ancelotti showed his tactical nous against his lauded opposite number.
Stopping The Front Three
Looking to stop Liverpool’s build-up from the back, Napoli pressed high in a man-oriented style, happy to create 1v1 defensive situations in the Reds’ half. If they couldn’t win the ball back within a few seconds of intense pressure, Napoli reverted into an unexpected 4-4-2 medium-block. Insigne and Milik played as the two centre-forwards, with Insigne dropping a little deeper than his Polish strike partner. Jose Callejón played wide-right in midfield with Fabián Ruiz on the left-hand side and the full-backs positioned on both ends of a back-four, as expected.
What is also expected of the Napoli full-backs is that they both get forward and provide width to Napoli’s 4-3-3 when Gli Azzurri are in possession, allowing the front three and midfield three to occupy more central areas. But Wednesday’s clash at the Stadio San Paolo threw up another surprise as Ancelotti’s Napoli positioned themselves in a 3-5-2 formation when the ball was theirs.
Mario Rui was the busiest man on the night covering the entire left flank on his own for Napoli as Fabián Ruiz moved into a more central attacking midfield role in possession. In contrast, right-back Maksimovic remained alongside Raúl Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly at the back ensuring the Napoli backline was never outnumbered by the pacey, dangerous Liverpool front three.
Anyone who’s been watching Serie A in recent seasons will surely vouch for Kalidou Koulibaly as one of European football’s best centre-backs. The man mountain is nicknamed ‘The Wall’ by Neapolitans and the Senegal defender proved why in this match. Every time Liverpool won possession back and looked to initiate one of their infamous, lightning-fast counter-attacks, Koulibaly was there to intervene for his side. Mohamed Salah is has been one of the world’s most dangerous attackers in the last year and is crucial to the fast transitions of Klopp’s Liverpool. The pacey Egyptian was never far from the sights of Koulibaly, who continuously thwarted the right-winger.
When playing with two forwards both in and out of defence and looking to dominate possession, you need one of them to drop a little deeper than the other so that you don’t get outnumbered in the middle. Lorenzo Insigne filled this role for his side against Liverpool, helping the midfield advance the ball into the final third while also helping to pressure the opposition’s midfield when Liverpool had the ball.
Insigne worked tirelessly to support his midfield with and without the ball and was Napoli’s most dangerous player in attack. The Napoli-born forward had 5 shots in total as well as an 89% passing accuracy, impressive for a number 10 in a game of this magnitude.
But despite making the best of the chances, Napoli remained deadlocked with Liverpool with only a few minutes remaining in the match. José Callejón and Mario Rui had provided Napoli’s best chances of scoring, creating five chances between them, four of them from crosses.
So, when the Partenopei created the best chance of the game in the 90th-minute of play, it was no surprise that it came from a cross after a clever exchange of passes on the right flank. No man was more deserving to be on the end of the cross than Lorenzo Insigne, the local boy slid to meet Callejón’s ball across the face of the goal and Gli Azzurri took the three points.
Two excellent teams with two of the best managers in the game were always likely to produce a tight affair, as we witnessed. Neither manager took many risks until the latter stages of the game, both wary of the other’s ability to score a cluster of goals in quick succession, if they’re given the chance.
One piece of quick passing and clever running at a time when defensive legs were perhaps a bit heavy was what made the difference on the night, though Napoli may feel they should have taken the lead earlier, if not for poor finishing.
Ancelotti and his coaching staff should be given a lot of credit for their somewhat novel fluid formations against this Liverpool team. The defence never looked outnumbered and their attack never looked like isolated players trying to force the issue. Mario Rui, Kalidou Koulibaly, José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne put in crucially needed performances for their team. Ancelotti and his Napoli side may have created a blueprint to halt Jürgen Klopp’s rampant Reds.