Fiorentina 1-1 Napoli: the away side’s lopsided defensive shape works rather well

September 1, 2010

The starting line-ups

The closest thing to a ‘glamour tie’ in the first round of Serie A finished all square – 1-1 both in terms of goals and red cards.

Fiorentina’s only debutant in Sinisa Mihajlovic’s first game in charge was Gaetano D’Agostino, the central playmaker who is effectively taking Stevan Jovetic’s place in Fiorentina’s 4-2-3-1 from last season. Otherwise, it was a distinctly Prandelli-esque team, with no major changes.

Walter Mazzarri sent Napoli out in a curious 3-4-1-2ish shape – more on that later. Their main point of interest was the debut of Edinson Cavani after his arrival from Palermo in the summer.

Napoli went ahead after just six minutes – Cavani headed a near post Andrea Dossena cross off the bar and down onto (or over) the line. The replays were inconclusive, but the goal was given and Cavani had a dream start to his Napoli career.

The first 15 minutes were frantic, with a few poor challenges and a bit of tension between the two sides, but when the game settled down, the two shapes became clear. Fiorentina were playing a fairly traditional 4-2-3-1 system, with Riccardo Montolivo joining the attacks, and Cristiano Zanetti looking after Marek Hamsik.

Napoli lopsided defensively

Napoli’s system, however, was much more intruiging, and could reasonably be argued as a 3-4-1-2, a 4-3-1-2, a 3-4-2-1 or a 4-3-2-1, with decreasing accuracy as you go along that list.

The diagram above and the screenshot below probably demonstrate it better than in words, but here’s a go. They seemed to play with two basic centre-backs, Paolo Cannavaro and the left-sided Salvatore Aronica. To their right was Hugo Campagnaro, who formed a back three, but also tended to move up the pitch and become involved in basic build-up play.

Those three tended to play to the right of the pitch, which allowed an attacking left-back, or perhaps left wing-back, Dossena, to bomb up and down the line – sometimes dropping in to form a back four, but also getting forward to good effect, as seen by his assist on the goal. On the right was Christian Maggio, whose starting position was more advanced than Dossena’s, and he tended to track back slightly less – and when he did, often Napoli ended up with a back five. In the centre were Manuele Blasi and Walter Gargano – the Uruguyan playing further up the pitch, tracking Montolivo closely.

Napoli played with two centre-backs (blue), a right-sided defender (yellow), a left-wing-back (green), two holding midfielders (pink), a defensive-minded right-sided midfielder (red), a right-sided central playmaker (purple) and a forward dropping to the left (black). Cavani, the striker, is out of shot.

That hopefully explains why the system could be “3-4-…” or 4-3…”, but we also had an issue with the three attacking players. Hamsik played behind the front two, but slightly to the right, whilst the two nominal forwards took it in turns to drop to the left, with Ezequiel Lavezzi doing it slightly more than Edinson Cavani. So it looked like a “…2-1″ when not in possession, and more like a “…1-2″ when Napoli did win the ball.

The question is, why were Napoli set out like this? Will it be their standard system, or were they simply reacting to Fiorentina’s shape? There’s a good case for saying it is the latter – whilst Fiorentina’s formation is a basic 4-2-3-1, there are elements of lopsidedness to it – mainly stemming from the fact their two wide players are very different in nature. On the left, Juan Vargas is a converted left-back, shoved forward because of his attacking instincts and his dangerous shot, whilst Marco Marchionni is a classic right-winger – a dribbler, a crosser, but not particularly keen to track back. Hence, the difference between the two often resulted in Fiorentina’s system skewed towards the right – see their shape at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, for example.

Fiorentina merit equaliser

In the end, Napoli’s shape actually worked quite well. The two standard centre-backs were 2 v 1 on Alberto Gilardino, whilst Dossena dropped in to pick up Marchionni. Campagnaro moving high up the pitch meant he was close to Vargas when the ball was in Fiorentina’s half, whilst also acting as cover if Dossena got caught out high up the pitch, and the defence had to shuffle across. When Fiorentina kept the ball, Maggio dropped in at right-back and Napoli shifted to something more like a five-man defence, against, broadly, four Fiorentina attacking players.

The problem was in the full-back area – mainly in Fiorentina’s left-back zone, where Manuel Pasqual had a lot of time on the ball. But he showed why Fiorentina were working all summer to get Emiliano Insua in – he was ponderous on the ball and also made mistakes defensively, and Fiorentina didn’t exploit that area of the pitch well enough. Maybe putting Vargas to left-back, and bringing on Adem Ljajic might have been an idea, but then Fiorentina probably had the better of the game after Napoli’s opener.

The equaliser came early on in the second half, and was a beautiful goal both aesthetically and tactically. Gilardino controlled a long ball forward, before laying it off to D’Agostino, who cut across the ball and sent it into the bottom corner. Gilardino is not a natural hold-up player, but this sums up what he’ll have to do this season – with Jovetic alongside him, it was often about neat interplay, but with D’Agostino an attacking midfielder more than a withdrawn forward, Gilardino will have to wait for midfield runners.

Gilardino had the best opportunity at 1-1, but hit his shot straight at Morgan de Sanctic. Late on, the harsh dismissals of Vargas and Blasi reduced both sides to ten, and both settled for a point. That half-hearted ending didn’t fit the rest of the game, which was both entertaining and tactically fascinating.


Top marks to Napoli for trying something different, and the shape is probably best described as a modified 3-4-1-2 that can cope with a side playing a lone striker – as we’ve seen before, sides playing three at the back often have problems with sides playing one upfront.

The pattern of play (generally in Fiorentina’s favour) was probably down to the fact that their playmaker, Montolivo, saw more of the ball than Hamsik. Montolivo may be the main beneficiary of Jovetic’s absence, as it will mean playing D’Agostino in that role, and Fiorentina have something more like a three-man midfield, rather than the two-man midfield that often saw them overrun last season.

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