Serie A 2021/22: How Dionisi’s astute tactical tweaks struck a blow to Napoli’s title push – tactical analysis
Sassuolo hosted Napoli on Tuesday night in what looked to be a potential banana-skin game for Luciano Spalletti’s side.
The Azzurri were coming into this fixture at the Mapei Stadium in fine form in Serie A, having trounced Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio 4-0 in the previous league game.
By the hour mark against Alessandro Dionisi’s Sassuolo, Napoli were 2-0 in front thanks to two excellent goals Fabian Ruiz and Dries Mertens. It looked like another comfortable night for the league leaders.
However, Gianluca Scamacca and Gian Marco Ferrari had other ideas, scoring a goal each to level the game. The Neroverdi managed to nick a winner right at the end through Gregoire Defrel but the goal was unfortunately disallowed after a VAR check due to a foul in the build-up from Domenico Berardi.
This was two massive points dropped for Napoli as both Internazionale, and Milan picked up wins in their respective matches. Spalletti even got himself sent off in true Spalletti fashion to top off a wonderfully entertaining second half.
Lineups and formations
Overall, there were not too many surprises from either Dionisi or Spalletti apart from Napoli using more of a 4-4-1-1 out of possession which switched to a 4-4-2. Sassuolo deployed a 4-3-3 but Napoli’s was certainly more of a 4-3-3 in possession.
For the hosts, the experienced Andrea Consigli started in goal behind a backline comprising of Jeremy Toljan and Rogerio as the fullbacks with Vlad Chiriches and Ferrari as the central defenders.
A youthful midfield saw Maxime Lopez deployed as a lone ‘6’ as he so often does while Davide Frattesi and Hamed Traore started as more advanced ‘8s’. The combined age of the trio is 22.
The front three was rather young too with Domenico Berardi and Giacomo Raspadori flanking Scamacca as the lone striker.
Napoli’s starting eleven was identical to the one that began on Sunday in the sumptuous thrashing of Lazio. David Ospina began between the sticks. The back four consisted of Mario Rui, Kalidou Koulibaly, Amir Rrahmani and Giovanni di Lorenzo.
Stanislav Lobotka, Ruiz, and Piotr Zielinski were the starting midfield three, flanked by Hirving Lozano on the right and Lorenzo Insigne on the left. Zielinski was used just behind the centre-forward. Mertens was utilised down the middle as he so often is.
Sassuolo’s creative possession patterns
The possession statistics for this match were rather close. Sassuolo held a slight edge with 51.16 percent of the ball compared to Napoli’s 48.84 percent.
The home side are fascinating to watch in possession and have still maintained some of the possession principles from Roberto De Zerbi’s reign, but the players position themselves wider under Dionisi.
Against, Napoli, Sassuolo were trying to build up through the thirds using a basic 4-3-3 type structure, or 2-3-2-3 depending on the positioning of the fullbacks and advanced midfielders.
Generally, the ‘8s’ were high and positioned themselves in the channel between Napoli’s wingers and central midfielders while Lopez was used as the lone pivot behind the opposition’s first line of pressure.
Sassuolo play in a similar fashion in most games. The objective for the central defenders was to try and circulate the ball around the backline with the fullbacks, enticing Napoli to press and then try to move the ball into Lopez when the situation arises.
Lopez is a very intricate player and can receive on the half-turn in tight spaces. Having him receive the ball forward-facing is Sassuolo’s key for easy and smooth ball progression into the final third.
Looking at the hosts’ pass map, the passing links were really strong to Lopez and he was the focal point of much of their attacks.
Napoli knew they had to stop the tricky Frenchman and so the first line of pressure was tasked with pivoting onto Lopez while pressing the backline. This essentially means that instead of both players pressing, one would simply press the ball-carrying centre-back while the other would drop off and mark Lopez.
For the first few minutes of the match, this was stifling Sassuolo’s ability to play through the thirds of the pitch as they could not get their focal point in a comfortable position on the ball.
The players needed to get creative and so Lopez began dropping out to the left and right of the centre-backs. This, in turn, allowed the fullbacks to push on as Sassuolo were still maintaining a 3v2 against Napoli’s first line of pressure.
This gave the visitors some structural issues and meant that the first line of pressure had more work to do. Instead of pressing two centre-backs and pivoting on Lopez, they were now tasked with pressing three. This stretched the front two wider and allowed another Sassuolo midfielder to drop into Lopez’s vacated space and receive the ball rather unscathed.
Gaps began to open with Napoli’s 4-4-2 mid-level defensive block and Sassuolo were finding it easier to reach the players between the lines where the Neroverdi are at their most dangerous.
In this instance, Lopez has dropped out wide into the space beside Ferrari. Mertens has moved across to close him down, widening the distance between him and Zielinski. This allows Ferrari to play into Traore who has moved into Lopez’s vacated position.
Napoli’s right central midfielder has pushed up to close Traore down while Lobotka has moved across too in order to cover for his teammate, but this has left Frattesi free to receive the ball between the lines on the half-turn.
All of this stemmed from one simple wide rotation of Lopez moving out wide with the fullback advancing. Here is another example where this worked very well:
The pass was slightly more unorthodox, but Lopez executed it well and Sassuolo were now between the lines where they always want to have the ball.
Napoli’s high press
The solution Sassuolo used to get themselves into dangerous positions between the lines were very astute and tactically intelligent but Napoli were still causing a lot of problems from their high-press.
In Sassuolo’s build-up phase, they tend to drop one of the advanced midfielders into the space behind the opposition’s first line of pressure. This allowed Napoli to go man-to-man in their 4-4-2 high-block shape.
The wingers would take the fullbacks, the centre-forwards pressed the goalkeeper and centre-backs while the double-pivot would man-mark Sassuolo’s two deepest midfielders tightly.
Quite often, Sassuolo were forced to move the ball out wide from this deep position and subsequently go long into runners in the channels but this has a low ball-retention percentage and so Napoli’s high press was causing issues.
Sassuolo played 40 long balls in this game which was the equivalent of around 9 percent of their total passes throughout the match. They lost the ball 37.5 percent of the time on these long passes.
On occasion that they did play short, Napoli’s man-to-man pressing system was working really well, and the Azzurri even scored from this in the second half which seemed at the time like it would be the three points in the bag.
Ferrari tried to play out of the press to Traore who was free behind the first line of pressure – although this perception was tainted as Lobotka was a lot closer to his man than the defender once thought.
Traore tried to turn on the ball, failed, forcing him backwards but his back pass was short. Mertens nicked the ball and it eventually fell to Ruiz in transition and the Spaniard made no mistake about where the ball was going. A tremendous goal from the visitors.
Napoli ended the match with a Passes allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) of 10.19 compared to Sassuolo’s 10.89. Spalletti’s men also made 58 ball recoveries with 53 percent of these recoveries coming in the middle and final third of the pitch.
Dionisi’s reactive tactical tweaks
Italian coaches have been known in the past for being very reactive and tactical. Dionisi kept this stereotype alive on Tuesday night, making multiple interesting tactical changes that proved beneficial to the side.
It is not a weakness for a coach to admit when their game-plan was wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite and shows that they are able to rectify situations before it’s too late.
Sassuolo set up in a 4-3-3, as stated, which switched to a 4-5-1 out of possession. Napoli used a 4-3-3 in possession with Lobotka operating as the lone pivot. In the defensive phases, Dionisi instructed Scamacca to press Napoli’s centre-backs while applying a cover shadow to Lobotka.
So, when Scamacca was applying pressure to the ball-carrying centre-back, he was supposed to do so while angling his run to block off the passing lane to Lobotka. This prevented Napoli from playing centrally to their pivot player and instead had to move the ball to the flanks.
As a safety net, Dionisi directed Lopez to push up to close Lobotka down when the situation arose where Scamacca’s cover shadow failed and the ball managed to reach the Slovak.
In this example, Scamacca has failed to carry out his duty of applying a cover shadow. Rrahmani slipped it into the feet of Lobotka but Lopez jumps him as quickly as possible in order to prevent the Napoli pivot from turning on the ball.
However, this caused issues for Sassuolo because when Lopez pushed up, he left space for other Napoli attackers to move into and receive between the lines.
The scenarios arose multiple times throughout the first half. Within half an hour, Dionisi had tweaked his side’s defensive set-up. Frattesi was instructed to move up closer to Scamacca and man-mark Lobotka, with Sassuolo’s defensive shape becoming more of a 4-4-1-1, similar to Napoli.
Lobotka was being given far too much room on the ball and so this change was necessary as it was becoming far too easy to play around the inexperienced Scamacca.
This eased a lot of the defensive work off of Scamacca too who was not carrying out his task properly. His only job became to force the centre-backs wide instead of having to worry about Lobotka behind him.
In the second half, Dionisi changed it once more and Traore began to undertake this role instead of Frattesi. It is difficult to decipher the reason as to why but perhaps the Italian coach felt that Frattesi is better than Traore defensively and so wanted the 22-year-old midfielder to protect the backline alongside Lopez instead of the Ivorian international.
Dionisi also made the decision to take off the Brazilian fullback Rogerio who was below-par in this match. Giorgos Kyriakopoulos was brought on in his place. This decision was highly-impactful on the end result as it was Kyriakopoulos’ wonderful cross to Scamacca which allowed Sassuolo to get back into the game.
Rogerio (6) was on the pitch for an hour and mustered up just one cross, to no success. Kyriakopoulos (number 77) attempted five in half an hour and was successful twice, leading to a goal on one occasion.
The cross for Scamacca’s goal was pinpoint perfection but was unfortunately outshone by the goal itself which was an utterly wonderful piece of individualistic play by the young Italian striker to manoeuvre himself in a crowded box to smash home.
Sassuolo have now taken seven points from nine against Juventus, Napoli, and Milan over the past few weeks which could have easily been nine from nine on Tuesday had the 94th-minute winner not been disallowed for a foul.
Dionisi’s side are a work in progress but are fantastic to watch at times and the manager himself has shown himself to be very tactically astute. Spalletti was notably upset on the side-line for obvious reasons and will be extremely disappointed to give away a two-goal cushion.
If the Naples-based club are to win their third scudetto, lapses in performance levels like this cannot occur regularly. With Milan and Internazionale both picking up three points, Spalletti’s side are under pressure to ensure that they beat Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta at the weekend.