Napoli 3-1 Milan: Counter-attack and Cavani hat-trick

September 18, 2011

The starting line-ups

Hat-trick specialist Edinson Cavani bagged another as Napoli confirmed their title potential.

Walter Mazzarri played what his strongest XI – Andrea Dossena came in for Juan Zuniga from the side that drew with Manchester City.

Max Allegri has something of an injury crisis, summed up by an extremely inexperienced bench. Daniele Bonera played at left-back, and Antonio Cassano partnered Pato upfront.

Milan took the lead through a superb Alberto Aquilani header, but the pattern of the game was this: Milan get possession, run out of ideas in the final third, Napoli win the ball, break quickly, and score.

Formation match-up

Napoli’s 3-4-3ish shape generally produces interesting games against different formations, and it was fascinating to see it come up against a midfield diamond. At either end of the pitch, there were few major issues – Napoli had 3 v 2 at the back, Milan had 4 v 3. All was well there. The midfield battle, however, was much more interesting, where there was a contest between Milan’s carrileros, who started narrow and moved forward to provide extra runners from midfield, and the Napoli wing-backs.

In a way, the Napoli wing-backs were forced to do a similar job as they did in midweek at City – to come narrow, out of their natural positions on the flank. Still, they did have problems when the carrileros made forward runs into very central positions – Clarence Seedorf found space a couple of times on the edge of the box.

Napoli breaks

It was equally interesting when Napoli won the ball, because the Milan carrileros were never quite sure what to do. In a 4-3-1-2, the midfield diamond usually stays narrow and slides across the pitch. Yet because Napoli attacked so directly, there was rarely any lateral movement from the diamond – Seedorf and Antonio Nocerino simply had to sprint back, often into very deep, wide positions that meant Napoli lost their shape.

In addition, Mark van Bommel didn’t really know what to do with himself. He had no direct opponent to pick up, and without the ball he failed to stop Napoli’s breaks – most obviously when he was skinned by Walter Gargano for Cavani’s second. His distribution on the ball was also quite poor, with the full-backs not free.

Milan in possession

Those full-backs could have done more in the attacking phase, though – Bonera is too right-footed to play left-back and was inevitably replaced by Luca Antonini in the second half. They were obviously scared of the counter, but Milan should have been able to half-trust, half-risk their two centre-backs plus a holding midfield when they were chasing the game.

Napoli rarely looked to press Milan (with the exception of one brief instance at the start of the second half) – they were happy to soak up pressure, win the ball in their own third, and then break. They were very much a counter-attacking side last season, but seem an exaggerated version of themselves so far in 2011/12.

Milan were extremely poor in the final third. It was a surprise to see Cassano to the right and Pato to the left – the former likes to drift in from the left, the latter has sometimes been fielded as a right-sided forward – but that wasn’t their main problem. Their passing was too slow, their play was too narrow and too easy to break down. Aquilani’s header was superb but otherwise he was disappointing, and he probably isn’t at his best as a trequartista. He is much better technically than Kevin-Prince Boateng, but at least Boateng gives drive to their attacks.

There were plenty of late substitutions, but they didn’t change the pattern of the match as Napoli successfully killed the game. Urby Emanuelson came on for van Bommel with Seedorf going to the holding role, and Blerim Dzemaili came on for Hamsik, playing a little deeper and making Napoli a 3-5-2 without the ball. Formations didn’t matter so much by this stage – Napoli were putting men behind the ball and defending deep, and Milan never looked like having the creativity to break them down.

Conclusion

Mazzarri won the battle here – Napoli were excellent at breaking quickly, with the wing-backs and Gargano rapidly turning defence into attack, whilst the addition of Gokhan Inler has made them fiercer in the centre of the pitch, even if they may lack Michele Pazienza’s discipline later on in the season.

Milan’s defeat was extremely reminiscent of their loss to Cesena just over a year ago. Then, it seemed they wouldn’t be able to win the title with such a narrow formation and no drive from full-back, but they pulled it off – so no need to get carried away with this defeat.

Napoli 3-1 Milan: Counter-attack and Cavani hat-trick

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