Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: Arsenal’s fullbacks pulled narrow as Napoli thrive with Rafa’s second half tactics
Congested fixtures finally seems to be catching up with Arsene Wenger as the North London team dropped points in 2 consecutive games for the first time this season. Wenger’s tremendous away record in the Champion’s League, which has seen him register huge wins at Munich and Dortmund, was finally ended when inspired second half changes by Rafa Benitez led to a 2-0 defeat for Arsenal. The Gunners though still qualified for the second round for the 14th consecutive time.
Napoli became the victim of the Group of Death as they failed to qualify even with 12 points. Rafa’s loss at the Emirates stadium had been put down to Higuain’s late injury by most of the San Paulo faithful, but the Argentine striker was fit and ready this time around.
Marik Hamshik was the player missing now, which allowed the in-form Goran Pandev to come in at No.10. Mertens was preferred to Insigne of the right and Dzemaili to Inler in the middle.
Wenger on the other hand had an eye of the weekend clash against Manchester City, and so came into this game looking for a draw with minimum effort. Theo Walcott was surprisingly benched again, which led to Rosicky and Cazorla slotting in either side of Ozil.
Ramsey and Wilshere were also rested which allowed Flamini and Arteta to start in the centre. Jenkinson continued at right-back in Sagna’s absence, and the youngster’s disjointed performance against Callejon was crucial to the proceedings in Naples.
This game was largely built up around Napoli’s capture of Arsenal target Higuain from Madrid, and the Argentine along with the attacking trio of Callejon, Pandev and Mertens behind him were displaying a stark contrast in style compared to Arsenal’s. Callejon started the game on the left, which allowed him to cut-in and this caused Carl Jenkinson problems right from the start.
The ex-Madrid attacker often found space in a narrower position just in front of Jenkinson on the flank, and this easily pulled the Arsenal fullback towards him. This left only Mertersacker and Koscienly at the back against Higuain, and the striker kept making runs behind the defence from the onset.
Olivier Giroud has been recently criticized for his lack of pace, and again what the Frenchman lacked was clearly visible in his counterpart Higuain. The Argentine was always found linking up with the No.10, Pandev or Callejon, and getting in quick one-twos around the Arsenal defence. Under Rafa, Higuain has particularly thrived at running off the shoulder of the defence, and this can be put down majorly to the service he has been provided by the trio behind him.
Both Callejon on the left and Mertens on the right took up very narrow positions and this made the defencive minded Arsenal to tuck-in to the centre of the pitch. Gibbs especially was closely tracking Mertens which saw the left back often found in a narrow central position.This left Cazorla on the left and Rosicky on the right as the only cover against Napoli’s fullbacks.
Neither Armero nor Maggio were available for the first leg in London, and Arsenal dominated that contest ironically through brilliantly overlapping fullbacks against a narrow Napoli attack. But here, with both Arsenal’s fullbacks looking to defend instead, Armero and Maggio were allowed a lot of space on the flanks.
Armero especially did a good job while overlapping behind Callejon. Rosicky, a player who Wenger has preferred during Champion’s League games, was particularly hesitant in tracking Armero down the flank, and this resulted in the Left back getting all the space against a narrow Jenkinson.
Maggio on the other hand was not given that amount of space due to both Cazorla’s better defencive awareness and Mertens’ natural tendency to pull-out towards the lines.
A simple comparison of the number of crosses attempted by both sets of fullbacks would be enough to show in whose court the ball was: the Arsenal duo just attempted 3 crosses combined, all of which were blocked within 5 yards of the cross, whereas the Napoli duo got in 8 crosses which though effectively handled by Arsenal, were in a good range for the forwards.
Most of the stories were down the flanks or rather the wingers coming narrower, but with Pandev playing in No.10, it was the centre where Rafa would have needed the numbers.
With both Flamini and Arteta sitting deep and Ozil and Cazorla falling back to escape Behrami and Dzemaili’s marking, Arsenal had the clear advantage in the numbers in the centre. This forced Napoli’s midfield to play a extremely high pressing game up the field, and as Arsenal didn’t have a single swift attacker higher up, Napoli’s midfield did not suffer the likely consequence of pressing high in midfield.
The duo of Behrami and Dzemaili took turns at sitting in the middle and stretching out and tackling Arsenal’s wingers. This made Mertens and Callejon track back to the centre regularly, and unsurprisingly the trio of Mertens, Behrami and Dzemaili committed 12 fouls across the centre of the pitch.
With only Giroud upfront, Arsenal’s midfield was barely able to take advantage of the numerical advantage in the centre, and this was mainly because the fullbacks were not providing any options on the flanks, away from Napoli’s intense pressing in the centre. But Arsenal were still able to maintain possession in midfield and despite the entire San Paulo whistling and booing, at half time Wenger looked set for the top spot.
Rafa brought on Insigne early in the second half and more significantly shifted Callejon to the No.10 role. Jenkinson continued to be troubled on the flank by Insigne instead, the difference being that the young Italian operated in a much more advanced position than where Callejon was playing. This along with his clearly greater creativity on the ball was what resulted in the genius pass for the second goal.
With Callejon now in the hole instead of Pandev, Napoli had much more pace and direct attacking intent behind Higuain. As mentioned Higuain has been thriving off the quick short passes with the No.10, and with Callejon now behind the Argentine, the service to Higuain improved drastically. One such quick move resulted in Higuain and Callejon bypassing Koscienly and then the Argentine scoring with Mertersacker unable to block.
Arteta’s red card after just 2 fouls all night was a major turning point in the game. Ramsey was initially brought on the right flank to cover Armero’s adventurous runs, and the Welshman was quite successful in stopping the Left back. But with Arteta’s dismissal, Ramsey was moved to the centre and Ozil to the left and again similar to Rosicky, Ozil was equally ineffective in tracking or closing Armero. Monreal’s arrival on the left eased the load on Gibbs, but Wenger never went for the move of bringing on Walcott which surely would have put Armero on the backfoot.
Rafa’s second half changes again proved effective on a huge European night for Napoli, but Wenger’s team selection and prioritizing for the EPL clash will surely come under scrutiny. Bacary Sagna is being truly missed by Arsenal, as Jenkinson has been failing continually against bigger teams. Mikel Arteta is set to miss out the 2nd round game which sees Arsenal face the likes of Barca, Madrid, Bayern, PSG or Athletico.