Napoli have the tools to trouble Real Madrid
Real Madrid are seeking to become the first team in the Champions League era to successfully defend the trophy. However, there is a chance their hopes of doing so will not even survive the first knockout round given the quality of the Napoli side they will face in the last 16.
Napoli travel to Spain for Wednesday’s first leg on the back of 11 wins in their last 13 matches in all competitions. They are a well-drilled team with a clearly defined style of play that has yielded an average of just under two goals per game so far this season.
While the Italians recognise it will be a tough tie, there is also an underlying feeling that they are capable of causing Madrid some problems.
Here are the keys to Napoli’s approach.
Pass and Move, Pass and Move
Napoli are led by Maurizio Sarri, a chain-smoking former banker who started out as a part-time coach in the regional amateur game and did his time in the lower divisions before finally reaching Serie A in 2014 as coach of Empoli - his 21st club.
Sarri’s primary influence is Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He strives for a team that is perfectly in sync; a team that runs like clockwork.
It is a lofty goal and although his side may not yet be fully there after just a season and a half under his command, what is certain is that Napoli produce effective football that is also very fun to watch. And as forward Jose Callejon noted recently: “From [goalkeeper] Pepe [Reina] forwards, everyone enjoys it,” he told AS.
Napoli play out from the back and progress forward with short and sharp combinations mixed with the occasional diagonal to switch the point of attack. The ball is moved on quickly and incisively, usually within one or two touches.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Napoli’s triangulations in wide areas, where they regularly work themselves in behind with a mix of slick interplay and practiced, co-ordinated movements: back and forth, in and out. The trio of Faouzi Ghoulam, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne down their left-hand side is one that produces regular threat for the opposition.
A Potent Attack
There were concerns that Napoli might struggle for goals following the summer departure of Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus. The Argentinian notched 36 goals in 35 appearances last season and replacing that output looked a tall order.
Such worries were, however, misplaced. Higuain is undoubtedly a fine striker but on the evidence of the campaign to date, it seems his incredible season was due, at least in part, to the volume of chances created by Sarri’s system.
His direct replacement, Arkadiusz Milik, scored at a rate better than a goal per 90 minutes of action in league and Champions League play before tearing cruciate knee ligaments back in early October. Dries Mertens, usually a winger, has scored three hat-tricks among his 15 goals in 15 starts in all competitions since moving into the central role in Milik’s place.
Indeed, only Manolo Gabbiadini, who was sold to Southampton in the January transfer window, has failed to take full advantage of that supply line so far this season.
And that is before even mentioning the contribution of the two wide forwards: Callejon and Insigne. The former is a master at finding space in behind and at the back post inside the area, while the latter is a consistent threat cutting in onto his favoured right foot from the left. Both are on course to comfortably reach double figures this season.
It is a measure of the potency of Napoli’s attack that has only failed to score on three occasions during the campaign to date.
Strong Defensive Pressure
Napoli employ an aggressively high press, often pushing the central of their three central midfielders forward to put pressure on his opposite number inside the opponent’s defensive third. They generally focus more on cutting off passing lanes and forcing errors than they do on seeking to directly win the ball back with tackles.
The plan is to stay compact between the lines. Anything that does break through is generally strongly and decisively dealt with by towering central defender Kalidou Koulibaly, while Reina is quick to come off his line to deal with any longer balls in behind. When everything is functioning well, it can be difficult to cause them serious danger.
There are, though, a few chinks for Madrid to try and exploit, as evident by the fact that Napoli have conceded twice or more on eight occasions so far this season.
Space can sometimes open up between the defence and midfield, especially if opponents are able to circumvent their initial press. For example, Benfica were able to work the ball into Raul Jimenez and Gonzalo Guedes with relative ease when they dropped slightly off the front and into the channels during the first half of the meeting between the sides in December.
The Napoli defence can also be prone to the odd blunder. Ghoulam’s wildly sliced clearance that Leonardo Bonucci volleyed home for the opening goal in their 1-2 defeat to Juventus in October and Raul Albiol’s sloppy giveaway that led to Jimenez’s late consolation goal in the aforementioned victory over Benfica are just two examples of these kinds of errors.