Milan 3-0 Napoli: Napoli don’t turn up

February 28, 2011

The starting line-ups

Milan recorded a comfortable victory over a hugely disappointing Napoli side.

Max Allegri gave Marek Jankulovski a rare start at left-back. Upfront, he used the Robinho-Pato-Ibrahimovic trio.

Walter Mazzarri played his usual XI with one exception – Ezequiel Lavezzi was unavailable, so Giuseppe Mascara started instead.

Napoli were extremely poor throughout the game. Their passing was very sloppy, they lacked drive or creativity from the centre of midfield, and Edinson Cavani couldn’t get into the game. Milan were below par in the first half, but stepped it up in the second and never looked likely to give up the lead once Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a penalty in the 48th minute.


The initial tactical match-up was interesting. As usual, Napoli used 3-4-2-1 as their ‘base’ formation, but varied it slightly to suit the opponents. Today, this meant that Walter Gargano was used higher up the pitch than usual, and Napoli often looked like a 3-3-3-1. Michele Pazienza played to the right and picked up Robinho, whilst Gargano tried to put pressure upon Milan’s three deep central midfielders.

For their part, Milan’s system was a cross between a 4-3-1-2 and a 4-3-3. Ibrahimovic was central but Pato started from the right, looking to come inside. Robinho drifted between a trequartista position and a leftish role – he would have preferred to remain central, but Pazienza’s presence made him look wide for space.

Napoli waste possession

Napoli did have the right idea from the start – they tried to switch play from flank to flank, hoping to use the pace of their wing-backs, and exploit Milan at full-back, as Spurs did so well recently. The moves broke down from the very beginning, however – a Napoli free-kick in midfield resulted in the concession of possession when they tried to play a crossfield ball, and Milan suddenly stormed forward. That set the tone for the match.

Napoli often looked down their right when they got the ball – Milan were weaker on that side of the pitch with Robinho inside, and Jankulovski was seen as the weak link at left-back. The Czech did well when called upon, however, and with Napoli having little joy down the flanks, they looked unable to create chances. In the centre, they were outnumbered as Milan’s three central midfielders sat deep without the ball, and Rino Gattuso and Matthieu Flamini should be commended for excellent, energetic performances – they shut down the wing-backs but also got back into position quickly when the ball was on the opposite flank.

Milan dominated possession (partly because of the numerical advantage in the centre, partly because Napoli have the ball to them so readily) but created little in the final third. Neither Pato nor Robinho’s attempted tricks came off, and the full-backs were reasonably conservative.

Second half

With that lack of creativity, it was rather fitting that Milan’s opener came from the penalty spot, rather than open play. Again, Napoli handed the chance to Milan – literally this time, as Salvatore Aronica needlessly used his arm when challenging Pato on the byline. Ibrahimovic thumped it home.

Napoli then spent ten minutes doing nothing when out of possession. Their natural game is to sit back, soak up pressure and sometimes switch to a 5-4-1 – but when behind, Milan simply kept the ball and didn’t commit themselves. It took a while before Napoli realised they had to try and close down, and press higher up the pitch – but it didn’t come naturally to them, and Milan passed around them in the centre of midfield.

Milan extend advantage

It became clear that Napoli didn’t really have a plan B – Juan Zuniga replaced Mascara and provided energy, but the shape was still the same. The away side couldn’t get the ball forward to Cavani, the dangerman, and it was also apparent that they lacked Lavezzi’s ability to stretch the play – in that respect, the wide forward does a similar job to Theo Walcott for Arsenal: even when he’s not playing well himself, he opens up spaces in the opposition for his teammates to work in.

Allegri took off Robinho and brought on Kevin-Prince Boateng, who provided drive from midfield – summed up by his late run for the second goal. Napoli then pushed forward more, but Pato got a third on the counter. Allegri replaced both his full-backs with fitness levels in mind, but Napoli were never a threat. Paolo Cannavaro’s header that dropped wide was their only meaningful attempt in the game.


Rarely can the concept of ‘big game experience’ have been such an obvious difference between two sides in a match. Milan’s veterans were up to the challenge, Napoli’s players simply looked nervous – nothing else can explain their poor use of the ball.

Napoli’s form this season against the other sides in the top 5 (Udinese, Lazio, Milan, Inter) is played five, lost five – you can’t challenge for the title with a record like that.

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