Serie A is up and running again and the season kicked off with a seven-goal thriller in Florence after Juventus’s early win at Parma. At the Artemio Franchi, Napoli edged Fiorentina 4-3 in a restless encounter in which Lorenzo Insigne scored twice whilst also setting up the other two Napoli goals. This tactical analysis will take a close look at the tactics used by both teams and the analysis highlights three interesting tactical trends that will be interesting to follow during the campaign.
Vincenzo Montella fielded a very young, new-look Fiorentina that featured new signings Pol Lirola, Milan Badelj, and Erick Pulgar as well as academy players Lorenzo Venuti, Gaetano Castrovilli and Riccardo Sottil. The young Serbian striker Dušan Vlahović led the line in Montella’s 4-3-3.
Carlo Ancelotti opted for the hybrid 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 he often used last season with Fabián Ruiz playing off Dries Mertens with José Callejon to the right and Lorenzo Insigne to the left. Former Roma defender Kostas Manolas partnered Kalidou Koulibaly in central defence for the first time in Serie A. Allan was joined in central midfield by Piotr Zieliński while new signing Giovanni Di Lorenzo made his debut at right-back.
Tactical analysis: Fiorentina’s possession play
It was clear from the beginning that Montella has worked on the make-up of his midfield during pre-season. Badelj sat at the base of the three-man midfield with Pulgar to his right and Castrovilli to his left. Castrovilli, making his Serie A debut, often pushed high, into the space behind Napoli’s midfield while Pulgar was slightly more reserved and was positioned on a passing lane somewhere in between the Croatian and the Italian. As we will see later, however, Pulgar sometimes pushed into the space between the lines too.
The below image, in the build-up to Kevin-Prince Boateng’s equalizer, highlights this setup perfectly. Napoli struggled to cope with Fiorentina’s midfield throughout and this positioning was one of the main reasons for their difficulties.
Another interesting mechanism of Fiorentina’s possession play was the movement of Federico Chiesa. The 21-year-old started on the left-wing but made repeated movements into the center. Napoli, who already struggled to deal with the trio of Badelj, Pulgar, and Castrovilli, found it even more difficult to handle Fiorentina’s best player popping up in areas such as the one highlighted below.
In the image below, Chiesa has again moved inside and attracts both Napoli midfielders to him (note: in this scene, Allan is covering at left-back with Mario Rui in midfield) which opens up space behind them for Pulgar to run into. Chiesa threads the ball through and Fiorentina have again played through Napoli’s midfield.
Montella was clever in the way he used Badelj too. As you see below, the Croatian would always stay in a position between Napoli’s front-two (they pressed with Ruiz alongside Mertens) and central midfielders which gave Fiorentina the advantage of always having a free central option to relieve pressure. Additionally, Badelj could turn and face forward, attract pressure and progress the ball into Pulgar and Castrovilli in the half-spaces or to the excellent Vlahović.
When Fiorentina couldn’t progress the ball along the ground, they would look for the dropping movements of Vlahović, chip the ball into him and then have Sottil or Chiesa making supporting runs for his lay-offs. This worked well at times and it seems as though the young striker will be one to watch this season.
Napoli’s positional issues
There were signs last season that Napoli had some positional issues defensively, particularly in midfield, and these signs were apparent on Saturday night too. The main issue revolved around their inability to deal with Badelj at the base of Fiorentina’s midfield. As mentioned above, he was always free between the lines of Napoli’s attack and midfield. Naturally, when he received the ball, one of Allan or Zieliński had to step up to press him. This, in turn, opened up the space behind them that Fiorentina wanted. A good example of this can be seen below as Badelj threads the ball through to Pulgar in the space vacated by Allan’s pressing movement.
The image below is another example of Napoli’s positional problem in midfield. Here, Allan (white) has been dragged wide by Pulgar as Fiorentina overloaded around the ball. This has opened up space centrally for Badelj. Lirola finds the Croatian and Napoli find themselves defending a dangerous situation yet again.
Badelj was a constant problem, especially in the first half, and the below image highlights this again. On this occasion, he doesn’t even receive the ball but Allan is attracted to him and that opens up space for Pulgar. Milenković steps forward with the ball and finds the Chilean in the right-sided half-space. The issue for Napoli here is that Sottil is positioned wide right, otherwise, Rui could have stepped onto Pulgar but now he prioritises defending the wide area.
The below image is the continuation of the above situation as Pulgar now looks to thread the ball through for Vlahović but the pass is not weighted well enough and goes out for a goal kick. With some more quality in the final third, Fiorentina could have punished Napoli even further.
This is something that Napoli need to fix immediately, but it is worrying that the issue remains despite it being obvious last season and Ancelotti having just had a full pre-season to rectify it.
Insigne changes the game
Despite their issues defensively, Napoli are lethal going forward. The quality they have in the final third is unreal at times when the likes of Insigne and Mertens are on song. The nominal set-up they had in attack can be seen below. On the left, Insigne moved inside with Rui overlapping while on the right, Callejon usually remained out wide. Ruiz moved into the right-sided half-space with Mertens through the middle. This led to an attacking line of five as highlighted below.
Initially, Napoli found it difficult against Fiorentina’s aggressive high-press. As you can see below, Montella committed a lot of players to stop Napoli’s passing high up the pitch. The press was largely man-orientated but there was a slight zonal focus too as the wingers maintained narrow positions initially to prevent central passes and instead encouraged the ball to be played to Napoli’s full-backs.
However, after some initial struggles, Insigne started finding space in the left-sided half-space to help Napoli play out from the back a lot more effectively. Scenes as the one below were common, with Rui often playing the ball into Insigne who could then switch the play.
The below scene is a good example. Rui is pressed by Sottil as Fiorentina have overloaded around the ball. The right-back Lirola hasn’t followed Insigne inside, however, which means the Italian has space and time to turn and switch the play.
The below image is the continuation of the above, as Insigne releases Di Lorenzo on the right with Fiorentina now having to retreat after their overload had failed.
Insigne proved the difference in this match with two goals and two assists. As mentioned above, he largely played in the left-sided half-space and it was from there that he assisted both Mertens and Callejon’s goals. In the image below, we can see how he pops into that space and how Fiorentina fail to deal with him since Lirola is focussed on the run of the full-back Rui down the wing. If given space in those areas there are few players as good as Insigne in creating opportunities and Fiorentina will rue their inability to deal with him in an otherwise strong performance.
Insigne’s winner secured three points for Napoli in one of Italy’s toughest away games. They will be delighted by the result, but the glaring issues between the lines of defence and midfield will worry Ancelotti. For Fiorentina, the new era didn’t get off to a dream start, but the performance of such a young side was encouraging and players like Milenković, Castrovilli, Sottil, Chiesa, and Vlahović will be exciting to watch this season.
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