Napoli 1-2 Udinese: Guidolin without Di Natale and Sanchez, but masterminds great victory
Two fantastic goals gave Udinese an important win over Napoli.
Francesco Guidolin had numerous absentees, most notably his two star forwards, Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez. He had to play Kwadwo Asamoah just off German Denis, the former Napoli player.
Walter Mazzarri played his usual 3-4-2-1 system – Hassan Yebda continued over Walter Gargano in midfield, and Victor Ruiz started at the back.
This game was highly anticipated for various reasons. Primarily, because Napoli and Udinese are the two sides punching above their weight in Serie A this season – 2nd and 4th coming into this round of fixtures – but because these are the two most tactically interesting sides in the league – whilst much of Serie A is fixated on playing slow, narrow football (leading the the popularity of 4-3-1-2 amongst the top clubs), these two are doing something different. Both have used a back three with wing-backs throughout the campaign, and can be considered Europe’s best three-at-the-back teams this season.
There was a widespread belief that Udinese were set to switch to a four-man defence for this game. In theory, this made sense – three at the back against Napoli’s front three would have been dangerous, and besides, Udinese’s injury problems meant a change of shape may have been necessary anyway. However, Guidolin put out a complicated system that was at times both a back three and a back four, and this contributed heavily to the victory.
First, it’s important to consider that there is often an element of lopsidedness to Udinese anyway. The recent game against Roma, for example, saw Pablo Armero on the left playing much deeper than Mauricio Isla on the right, because they had different marking responsibilities - with Roma’s Mirko Vucinic playing to the left.
Vucinic’s positioning for Roma is actually not dissimilar to Ezequiel Lavezzi’s for Napoli – they both like to stretch the play and move close to the touchline without the ball, before drifting into the centre to provide a goal threat. Therefore, Udinese’s system was always likely to be slightly similar to in the Roma game – just a version adapted slightly to meet the demands of Napoli’s peculiar formation.
Udinese essentially did three things very well. First, they retained a spare man at the back. Second, they contained Napoil’s wing-backs. Third, they won the midfield battle whilst also giving Napoli a threat at the back.
Numbers at the back
The suggestion that Udinese would go with a back four was because they wanted a spare man at the back, rather than 3 v 3. It would be simple, therefore, to play a very narrow back four and pick up Napoli’s tridente that way – Mehdi Benatia up against Lavezzi, Giovanni Pasquale keeping an eye on Marek Hamsik (who plays more centrally) and 2 v 1 against Edinson Cavani.
This often doesn’t work very well, however, because whilst the full-backs can tuck in and form a clear defensive shield against the three, this opens up space down the flanks for Napoli’s wing-backs – who then force the wide midfielders to get into extremely defensive positions, sometimes forming a back six. See the game against Roma, where the Giallorossi wide players switched off and the wing-backs had far too much space to scamper into, or the game against Genoa, where Genoa’s carrileros had to become auxiliary full-backs as there was no-one else to track the Napoli wing-backs, leaving the centre of the pitch bare.
Therefore, Guidolin had a different plan. The key was the use of Gokhan Inler, who played deep ahead of his own defence and picked up Hamsik. The Slovakian played as a central playmaker, and took too long to realise that he was going to have to take up different positions to escape his man. This meant that Udinese would have had 5 v 3 at the back (extending that zone to include Inler and Hamsik) – not needed – so instead, Giovanni Pasquale could play higher up the pitch and occupy Christian Maggio. At the back, Udinese’s back three played to the right of centre, with Benatia on Lavezzi and Maurizio Domizzi on Cavani. Cristian Zapata was the spare man. When Napoli’s build-up play was laboured, Pasquale could drop in as the left-back and Udinese would form two banks of four to give extra strength to the defence – but this formation only happened when Napoli held on to possession for a long period – in other words, when Napoli were camped behind the ball and weren’t going to be prone to late runs from the wing-backs, as they could see the whole ‘picture’ of play.
Pasquale was pinning back Maggio, whilst Isla was doing an even better job against Andrea Dossena higher up the pitch. It was 2 v 2 in the centre of midfield, whilst Asamoah dropped goalside of Michele Pazienza to make up the numbers in midfield – before then sprinting forward to form a more traditional front two when Udinese won the ball – exactly as Sanchez had against Inter, which was the key feature of that game.
Essentially, Napoli had nowhere to go. Udinese had a spare man at the back, they were tracking the runs of Napoli’s wing-backs with wing-backs of their own – something Napoli really aren’t used to – and when Asamoah dropped in, they also had a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch. They were set up excellently to stop Napoli, and were on course for a clean sheet until Domizzi’s stupid 87th red card.
None of this explains why Udinese won the game – their gameplan was based around defence. For goals, they had to rely on a tremendous strike from Inler to get in front, and then when Napoli left more spaces at the back, a quick break down the flank resulted in the second.
This was rather clever from Guidolin – it confused Mazzarri and Napoli’s players, along with journalists who didn’t know whether this was a back three or a back four.
“We’ve won a complicated match under precarious circumstances. The team could feel the coach’s trust and believed in the win. I really believed my boys could take this kind of match and they followed me” Guidolin said.
“I asked the team to play by trying to win the numbers game in the midfield, and to hit our opponents with the midfielders’ movement. I lined up Asamoah first, then Armero, in a slightly advanced position, behind the first striker. During the week we’ve been trying the 4-men defence.”
What could Napoli have done differently? Mazzarri has been a master of keeping his broad system but changing small aspects of his side this season, most frequently by pushing Hugo Campagnaro forward from his right-sided centre-back position if Napoli had a surplus at the back (and therefore a shortfall elsewhere). This seems to be happening less readily in recent months, however, almost used only when Napoli desperately need to get back in the game. Compare this to the opening day draw with Fiorentina (where Napoli went ahead after a couple of minutes and were never behind in the game) – it happened instinctively there, and it’s a shame that Mazzarri has been a little more cautious in this respect than he might have been.