Napoli 1-0 Palermo: two similar systems, the home side more fluent and fluid

December 7, 2010

The starting line-ups

It took a 94th minute goal to win it, but Napoli were far the better side throughout.

Walter Mazzarri made two changes to Napoli’s defence, bringing in Gianluca Grava and Salvatore Aronica. The rest of the side remained the same, in the 3-4-2-1 / 3-4-3 formation they’ve used throughout this campaign.

Delio Rossi surprisingly switched to a back three for this game, a curious decision since it was the first time this season he’d strayed from a four-man defence. Only one change in personnel was made – Armin Bacinovic, the central midfielder, departed, and made way for Nicolae Dorin, the centre-back. The two full-backs pushed on accordingly.

The game was 0-0 until the 94th minute, but this tells only part of the story. Napoli were on top for almost the whole game – the statistics show they had 18 shots compared to Palermo’s 8, 9 on target compared to Palermo’s 1, 16 corners compared to Palermo’s 2 – it was a thrashing in every respect apart from the scoreline. Therefore, it’s fair to look at why Napoli dominated, and there were three main reasons.

More natural wing-backs

It was plain to see that Napoli were more comfortable in their shape as a whole, best demonstrated by the performances of the two sets of wing-backs. Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena moved very high up the pitch to the point where both became goalscoring threats (Maggio netted the late winner, Dossena flashed a good chance wide), and also provided dangerous crosses into the box. Their natural game was to play alongside the midfield and look to push forward – if they lost the ball, they would retreat towards their own goal, but with Palermo’s lack of natural width high up the pitch, their only direct opponent was the opposing wing-backs, and therefore they could afford to be reasonably attack-minded.

Palermo’s wing-backs looked exactly what they are – full-backs pushed forward for the day. Both Mattia Cassani and Federico Balzaretti are attack-minded enough to be regarded as ‘attacking full-backs’, but they were far too conservative as wing-backs and rarely got themselves into attacking positions. Wing-back is a difficult position to master – stamina is the main attribute needed, but it is one of the more difficult roles to play in terms of positioning too, and Napoli’s were simply more well-versed at it.

Napoli central midfield functions better

These two sides had similar ideas about how to operate in the centre of midfield, deploying one central midfielder ahead of the other, rather than using two ‘flat’ players. Again, however, the positioning of Napoli’s midfielders was better. One of Michele Pazienza and Walter Gargano would generally be in a position to get goalside of Javier Pastore, but not of Josip Ilinic, who was instead treated as more of a striker when he made forward runs. This meant that Napoli effectively had 3 v 2 at the back against Fabrizio Miccoli and Ilinic, whilst Pastore was picked up by a holding player, and the other central midfielder would play higher up the pitch and track either of the Palermo central midfielders if they broke from deep.

Palermo’s central midfielders had more of a problem about who to pick up, which links onto the next point…

Napoli more fluid in attack

When Marek Hamsik found himself tracked by Antonio Nocerino or Giulio Migliaccio, he would move into wide positions and drag them out of position, or (more often) simply find himself in space. There, he could link up with the wing-backs and create 2 v 1 situations, or simply pick up the ball with more time than his (broad) opposite number, Pastore.

The same was true of the two players ahead of Hamsik – Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi. It was difficult to assign any of them set positions – they drifted across the pitch fluidly and offered far more attacking options. There were various benefits here – (a) the Palermo centre-backs didn’t know who to pick up, with one of the three often becoming redundant, (b) the Napoli forwards drifts into wide areas made Palermo’s wing-backs less inclined to attack, as discussed previously, and (c) the Napoli central midfielders did not have such a clear marking job.


The third factor – fluidity at the top end of the pitch – was the main difference between the sides, and was probably the catalyst for the other two factors. Napoli were able to dominate possession, which meant that they were able to get their wing-backs forward more, become less of a ‘broken team’, and offer more attacking options without being left vulnerable at the back.

The Palermo wing-backs looked particularly uncomfortable, not used to the position (although Palermo did play that way last season on occasion) and there must be some level of blame attributed to Rossi for choosing to move away from the system that had been so successful in the previous game against Roma.

It is significant that Rossi had to remove a central midfielder for a centre-back to make the switch in formation, meaning he was unable to move back to a four-man defence had he considered it appropriate. If he possessed a modern sweeper, he wouldn’t have had to – and this Palermo performance was a great advert for having a player able to move between centre-back and central midfield, with the full-backs shuttling up and down in turn.

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