Serie A 2019/20: Napoli vs Roma – tactical analysis
Napoli and Roma met in Serie A this weekend with both sides looking to keep their Europa League places secure. Although there are still nine games remaining, both Roma and Napoli appear to be out of the Champions League picture as they are 12 and 15 points behind fourth-placed Atalanta respectively. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics both teams used in their attempt to pick up the three points and bounce back from respective defeats last time out in Serie A. It was Atalanta that all but ended Napoli’s hopes of Champions League football next season with a 2-0 win over the Partenopei in midweek. The result also brought to a halt to Reno Gattuso’s men, nine-match unbeaten run across all competitions, during which they won the Coppa Italia, creating a safety net for Napoli with a guaranteed Europa League spot.
Roma, meanwhile, have lost half of their past 10 games including a 2-0 defeat to 15th-placed Udinese last time out, a run that saw them drop out of the top four and fall away from Atalanta whose quick start after the resumption has had an impact on the sides around them to date.
In their last encounter, these two sides played out a tight game in which Roma triumphed 2-1 after goals from Nicolo Zaniolo and Jordan Veretout gave them the lead. Napoli responded late through Arkadiusz Milik but couldn’t close the gap and steal a point. The takeaway from Roma on that day was a solid defensive shape with 4-2-3-1 as their base. That game was a very even contest with chances hard to come by. Their most recent matchup was to be more of the same.
Paulo Fonseca sprang a surprise by switching to a 5-3-2 shape to accommodate the threat of Napoli’s forward-thinking players. Chris Smalling anchored the back five but lasted only a short time before being replaced through injury. Diego Zappacosta, an almost permanent fixture down the right-hand side, and Leonardo Spinazzola occupied the wingback positions while the midfield three were unchanged from the Udinese game. Justin Kluivert partnered the ever-reliable Edin Dzeko at the top. Genaro Gattuso stuck with his tried and tested shape for this match and continued to juggle personnel to retain freshness in his squad. Kostas Manolas came into the backline while Arkadiusz Milik led the line with Dries Mertens dropping to the bench. Lorenzo Insigne continued ins his usual role in front of the influential Mario Rui, while Jose Callejon came into the starting line up on the opposite side of midfield.
It was a surprise to see Paulo Fonseca set his Roma side up in a deep 5-3-2 block given his side’s favoritism of their 4-2-3-1 shape across the season. He had obviously decided the best way to counter Napoli’s fluid passing style was to sit a little deeper than normal, stay narrow and compact, and hit Napoli where they are most vulnerable – on the counter-attack. With Dzeko not the most mobile of target men in 2020 it would be important for Roma to use the roaming Klievert to offer the threat in behind or in open space in these moments, especially when recovering the ball from deeper positions and use Dzeko as a fixed target to set a platform to counter or help the team get up the pitch from those deeper positions.
For Napoli, it is more of the same. Build from the back to create overloads across the pitch by using minimal numbers to pin in the opponent backline.
This tactical analysis will look at Roma’s low block and counter and how Gattuso used something a little different to his normal quick passing style at times to unlock the Roma backline and create moments of danger in front of Pau Lopez’s goal.
The early exchanges and Roma’s low block
This is the typical picture confronting Napoli during a first half of limited moments of excitement Roma started compact and deeper than expected in their 5-3-2 shape. The front two dealing with passes into the Napoli #6 Demme and stopping them penetrating centrally. This allows the midfield three to remain flat and deal with the advancing Napoli fullback as they progressed up the pitch to support the attack. This kept the Roma wingback connected to the backline and allowed Roma to contain the ball in front of the block for much of the opening exchanges.
It wasn’t all low blocks and counters though for Roma. Any pass played backward by Napoli was an opportunity to press together, whilst maintaining the same defensive shape. As this image shows the ball back from the fullback to the Napoli centre-back invites the pressure. Two forwards pressing from the #6 position again and the flat midfield three ready and waiting to pounce on central passes on the ball side while the furthest midfielder from the ball waits on Napoli playing around the backline and releasing Rui at left-back so that he can engage the ball on the weakside.
If you defend in a medium or low block, it’s important that the team can find moments to throw its own punches and recover the ball into ball possession, or if so inclined counter quickly into the space vacated by the opponent. With Napoli’s high counter-pressing levels, playing quickly past the pressure was the key for Roma but here we will look at those moments Roma tried to press and its success or failure.
Here in this image you will see the Napoli forward inside and marked by the ball side centre back. Because of this Roma were able to release their wingback to press the Napoli fullback and create moments like previously spoken about. In the earlier image, the wingback arrives at the fullback as the ball does and so the pass goes backward and is a pressing moment. However, in this image, the ball hasn’t yet traveled to the fullback and therefore a space has opened up beyond the wingback and so Roma becomes vulnerable to the threat in behind. With the midfield player on the ball side not close enough to help out in this moment and therefore the space in front or behind the wingback is beginning to become an issue for Roma.
Napoli’s use of deep runners
As the previous images have shown Roma is happy with the ball in front of them and even content to deal with forward passes in behind the backline for runners from the topline to chase down. While this isn’t ideal for them, it is a consequence of the wingback trying to be proactive and press in moments that have obviously been engineered by Fonseca in preparation for this game.
As the previous images have also shown, against a team like Napoli if the system has slight faults at certain moments, they will be found. Napoli’s ball circulation from side to side is fine for Roma’s backline as the ball remains in front but if the Napoli winger remains in the wide space Roma cannot release their wingback and the fullback can travel forward into the space. This isn’t an issue if the midfielder on the ball-side of the flat three can get across to protect that space. If he can’t, it turns into an uncontested overload for Napoli in that wide space.
Here is the next issue. With the Roma midfield three working hard across the pitch, at what point do they forget that instruction and deal with the midfield runners from deep? It could be no problem if the backline is able to absorb the extra runner but if the line is loaded with numbers by Napoli how do they deal with an extra runner beyond the ball?
This image gives the tactical overview discussed previously. The Roma wingback presses the Napoli fullback because the ball-side centreback can make the wide player. He presses a ball he can’t win, opening the space in behind. No issue because the Roma backline has a plus one overload against the three Napoli forwards. However, who tracks the run from deep? The midfield is working across again and are not thinking about marking or tracking this run. And so the ball in behind from Rui leads to a clear Napoli chance.
Here, the same picture from another moment. Notice the runner from deep and the lack of support to the backline from the midfield in tracking this runner. If the wingback stays in the line the Roma back five defend one man further inside allowing this runner to be absorbed by the ball-side centreback and the problem is halved.
While effective and potentially dangerous for Roma. There wasn’t enough moments like this for Napoli until much later in the game.
Roma’s fixed pivot threat on the counter
As mentioned, Roma’s most effective periods were when they were able to play into the feet of Dzeko and attract pressure to him to narrow Napoli inside to create moments for the wingbacks to progress up the pitch into crossing positions.
Here is an example of that very moment. This image shows the narrowness of Napoli in this type of moment allowing Roma to play forwards inside to then hurt Napoli around the outside. Roma at times were able to play through the Napoli front line and find their #6, Veretout. Because of the flat-four in midfield Napoli had to leave this pass in favour of keeping the ball in front or send a midfield player to the ball and risk getting played through. Here you can see Veretout play from deeper but straight into Dzeko’s feet as the Napoli midfield mark their direct opponent. With help from support under the ball, they are able to find the weakside wingback in a high position to deliver into the box.
Here, a similar situation on the counter. Fixed position for Dzeko to attract pressure with support around him. He wins the header and it falls for Pellegrini who drives into the space created. With runners beyond him, he is able to create a shooting opportunity that goes narrowly wide.
The second half action
These two scenarios played themselves out with the moments that mattered during the second half as we will look at now. The end result hinged on the execution of the plan in a close contest and some small individual brilliance that makes the difference on the day.
Napoli’s first goal from Callejon in the 55th minute is pictured here and it shows a theme familiar to the first half tactical battle. A flat Roma backline focused on the ball and pinned back by minimal Napoli numbers. Runners from deep positions not tracked from midfield and the consequences are fatal here at Callejon sneaks between defenders to finish Rui’s brilliant cross with a side-footed volley. 1-0 Napoli and to be fair it had been coming. Just before half time, a similar chance created from an almost identical position.
Same picture from the first half. Runners from deep positions getting in behind the Roma defensive line. They had been warned. In both images Roma aren’t ready to defend this type of cross. Ball played in between recovering backline and goalkeepers are the hardest to deal with as the defenders face their own goal. Early crosses like these two from Rui need to be defended by players attacking the ball and not retreating and collapsing into their goal.
The Roma goal also had its origins in the first half plan put out by Fonseca.
Here we see Dzeko as the focal point again of a Roma counter-attack. Attracting players around him he is able to maintain possession and switch to the weak side and find Mkhitaryan in time and space.
With Napoli caught out and outnumbered the backline retreats quickly to buy time for the recovering defenders to get back behind the ball again. However, this gives space to Mkhitaryan who drives forward before finishing with a low shot into the corner to even the game up again. It really is a brilliant goal and a classic example of a team playing on the counter throwing a sucker punch at the opponent. It is an area Napoli is vulnerable to especially when they cannot kill the game with fouls to stop play early in transition. It is hard to manage a striker like Dzeko in these moments and although he isn’t as mobile these days his value in moments like this for his team cannot be underestimated.
The Napoli winner is individual brilliance turning the game on its head. Should Roma have got more pressure to Insigne before he can shoot, maybe. But take nothing away from the finish, it is fantastic and a more than worthy winning goal. Napoli could have sown in up in the next minute with a Mertens breakaway and finish brilliantly saved by Lopez as the Belgium international finished across the keeper.
As end of season games go, this was a typical encounter between two teams who sit comfortably cushioned in safe places and content in the knowledge that barring any major car crashes European football will be theirs again next season. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a hotly contested game at times but it lacked the cutting edge both teams needed to finish the other off early. Both teams had their chances and could well have put the game to bed long before Insigne’s excellent winner but a combination of good goalkeeping and lack of final product cost Roma especially in the end.
From a statistical point of view, Napoli dominated the game and should have won the match. 59% possession and eleven shots on target from twenty-one attempts compared to 3 on target from 7 attempts is clear evidence of the desire of Roma to stop Napoli rather than threaten much themselves. Despite this, Paulo Fonseca showed again his tactical flexibility in his change of shape to counter the threat of Napoli in the final third and his approach could have been justified if his side had managed to steal a point away from home. Teams like Roma who change their focus like this to deal with an opponents’ threats are common in this league with highly skilled managers countering bigger teams like Napoli, Inter and now Juventus who have their own distinct style of play and philosophy. Many other teams will continue to adapt in this league to make life harder for these teams and this is what makes Serie A such a fascinating league to follow from week to week.
Both sides have the shortest turnaround with Roma preparing for a visit from Parma on the horizon as they look to bounce back from two straight defeats. Napoli meanwhile travel to Genoa for matchday thirty-one. Roma then faces a tight rest period as they travel to Brescia who desperately needs some points to close the gap on the teams above them as their survival in Serie A slowly fades away.