Ten matches into the campaign, the race for Champions League qualification is already beginning to heat up in Italy, with Roma playing host to Napoli in Serie A this week. The fourth- and sixth-placed teams respectively know that matches such as this will be crucial in any success they may have this term. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics used by Paulo Fonseca and Carlo Ancelotti in this early clash of Italian giants.
The sides came into the match in very different forms. Roma came in on the back of consecutive wins against AC Milan and at Udinese. Napoli, on the other hand, drew against SPAL at the weekend and Atalanta midweek, leaving them in a very unfamiliar spot outside the Champions League qualifications spots. This analysis will take a look at how both sides looked to come away with three points from their start to November.
Fonseca lined up his home side in their normal 4-2-3-1 formation. Only two changes were made from the side that defeated Udinese midweek, with Cetin filling in for the suspended Fazio and Spinazzola taking his place back on the right side of the defence.
Davide Ancelotti took charge in place of Carlo due to the manager’s red card midweek. There were multiple changes to the Napoli side, in no small part due to the injuries that continue to plague his side. Zielinski replaced Allan in the centre of the park, and Mertens took his place alongside Milik after Lozano failed to impress in this role against Atalanta.
Roma’s attacking structure
As we touched on earlier, Roma went into a 3-4-2-1 formation when possession was gained. Mancini’s inclusion in the backline gave Kolarov and Spinazzola the task of providing the width for the side, with the ability to get forward whenever possible. Higher up the pitch, Kluivert and Zaniolo moved into more central positions.
The positioning of Roma’s players in possession caused Napoli a lot of problems in their defensive set-up. Veretout and Pastore dropped deep to facilitate Roma’s passing movements. Between the two midfielders and the three central defenders, Roma could pass around Napoli’s strikers for the entire match. To press this possession, the visitors’ wingers or central midfielders needed to push forward. Roma were anticipating this, however, and would expose whichever area was vacated by the extra press.
The wide areas were the most problematic for Napoli. With Spinazzola and Kolarov pushing forward and Kluivert and Zaniolo occupying wide areas, Napoli’s defensive players were unsure who they needed to mark and where they needed to be. When the full-backs pressed high, the Napoli wingers did not track back enough, which left their defenders at a numerical disadvantage. As you can see above, Rui has followed Zaniolo into a central position. Spinazzola acknowledges this and burst forward down the line, and Rui must try and recover.
Mancini plays the perfect pass over the top for Spinazzola to run onto. He reaches the Napoli penalty area before cutting it back to Zaniolo. The Roma attacker is now completely unmarked. Rui was forced back to track the full-back, and Zielinski has not had time to recover. Zaniolo takes his time before putting his side 1-0 up.
Initial press frustrates Napoli
Fonseca was well aware of the attacking threat Fabian and Zielinski provided when Napoli were in possession. To combat this, he set his side up to limit the passing options in this area of the pitch. Below you can see Roma’s initial pressing structure when Koulibaly or Manolas was on the ball.
The home side sent five players to press in the initial phase. Slightly staggered, these pressing lines suffocated Napoli’s midfield, limiting passes into them. When one of them was found, it normally resulted in a one-two back to another defender, as Roma’s press blocked off any forward mobility or passing options. In the image below you can see Koulibaly has passed into Fabian, and the Spaniard then quickly tries to combine with Zielinski. However, Zaniolo comes in from the midfielder’s blind-side and immediately dispossesses him, resulting in a Roma counter.
This tactic worked in frustrating the away side and preventing potential attacking threats from even forming in this area. When Napoli were able to beat this initial press, Roma would drop into their 4-2-3-1 formation, and most often this was done by the away side using wide areas to create opportunities.
Napoli’s focus on the wide areas
Napoli came into this game off the back of two points from their last two matches. Ancelotti’s side have been struggling to find the form of previous years and needed a major performance against a direct rival to get back on track. However, for most of the match, the Naples side seemed lost. Injuries have begun to take a toll on this side in recent weeks – the absences of Kevin Malcuit and Faouzi Ghoulam in the full-back positions, in particular, have taken away from the attacking threat these areas provide. Most notably, Allan’s injury against Atalanta that will keep him out for around six weeks could be the most painful. Without the Brazilian, Napoli’s midfield lacked the bite it needed to stop Roma from breaking at pace with number on numerous occasions. We will touch on this absence again later.
Following Kolarov’s penalty miss after a controversial VAR decision, Napoli began to get forward with more purpose. In their attacks, they looked for wide areas and due to Roma’s initial emphasis on limiting the central space, Napoli’s outside players had space. Specifically, Napoli looked to create numerical advantages on the left side of the pitch. Di Lorenzo often joined the centre-halves to allow Rui to push forward to link with Insigne and Mertens.
In this area of the pitch, Napoli were able to create their biggest opportunities of the match. Mertens often dropped deep from his striker position to combine with Insigne and Rui. With the full-back holding the width, the other two were able to make overlapping and underlapping runs to pull their markers out of position.
Above you can see an example of this in action. Insigne has come inside to occupy the Roma centre-half as Rui presses forward out wide, attracting the attention of Spinazzola. Mertens is able to find the inside channel between these two markers to make a run. Milik was unlucky to hit the resulting header off of Mertens’ cross onto the bar.
This deeper space Rui left would often be used by Zielinski, who would try and find space in other areas due to Roma’s pressing scheme. The Polish international took the place of the injured Allan, but they are very different players. Zielinski is more attacking-minded and looks to draw presses out before using his dribbling or passing abilities to expose the space. When taking up a position in this area, one of Roma’s initial press would look to step forward. However, Zielinski beat this marker on numerous occasions before bursting forward into the space left. This was often used to link up the initial build-up to Mertens and Insigne. Below you can see the midfielder’s heat map. These tactics are clearly shown by where he found opportunities to get in possession.
Roma’s dynamic midfield
Fonseca’s side was set up in their 4-2-3-1 formation, but this shape consistently changed depending on the situation throughout the match. In Mancini, Veretout, and Pastore, Roma had a dynamic midfield that could step into multiple different areas.
Mancini, a centre-half by trade, was set up as the midfield anchor in this match. His presence allowed the other two the freedom to press as they saw fit out of possession and get forward when opportunities arose.
In possession was where Mancini was at his most crucial. Roma’s build-up initially started in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Mancini would drop in between the centre-halves, allowing Kolarov and Spinazzola to press forward. The Italian’s positioning gave Roma a numerical advantage in this area of the pitch against Napoli’s two forwards. Veretout and Pastore then dropped deep to create passing triangles for the home side to use as they looked to progress forward.
Pastore has largely struggled for form since his move to Rome from the French capital. The Argentinian midfielder shows flashes of his brilliance, before largely disappearing for weeks at a time. This match fell under the former category.
Fonseca gave Pastore the freedom to move around the pitch – his role was to find the weak areas in Napoli’s structure and provide a link to the attacking players.
Above you can see Pastore dropping into the defensive line. His positioning gave Mancini the ability to step above the Napoli strikers’ initial press. Pastore finds a pass through this line and Mancini finds Spinazzola for the first goal of the match.
Veretout can simply be described as Roma’s swiss army knife. The Frenchman has stepped up heroically in the absence of Pellegrini to keep Roma pushing for a top-four spot. His constant presence in midfield is the key in allowing the other two the freedom to move into these other positions.
In the pass map above, you can see the different roles the three midfielders have. Mancini’s (23) passing lines show him regularly dropping into the space between the centre-halves. Pastore (27) can be seen combining with all of his teammates on the right-hand side of Roma’s defence and attack. Veretout (21) is the metronome. His central positioning can be seen with passing lines to everyone all over the pitch. The Frenchman kept the home side ticking in possession and held his nerve to score the winning goal on the afternoon from the penalty spot.
Napoli showed flashes of the side we have seen in recent years, and on another day could have grabbed a result. However, Roma came away deserving winners in this match. Fonseca has implemented a very evident and effective style to his side. The fluidity on show as they transitioned between defensive and attacking phases of the match proved too much for Napoli to beat. Specifically, the attacking tactics implemented by the home side made the difference.
It is back to the drawing board for Ancelotti and his side. Two points from three matches this week leaves the Naples side with a sour taste in their mouths in seventh place in the table. With Allan sidelined for at least a month, a formation change might be needed to make up for the absence. Adding a third player into the midfield would provide extra protection for the defence, who were heavily exposed by Roma in this match.
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