Mihajlovic manages to push Napoli out of shape

September 25, 2011

The starting line-ups

An interesting feature of Napoli’s 0-0 draw with Fiorentina last night was the sight of a back three up against a front three, with Sinisa Mihajlovic exploiting Napoli’s weakness on the flanks.

An early season fixture in 2010/11 between these two sides provided lots of tactical interest, because Walter Mazzarri used a lopsided system to play against Fiorentina’s 4-2-3-1, with Hugo Campagnaro moving forward onto Juan Vargas when Napoli pushed forward, and leaving Christian Maggio to pick him up when Fiorentina had the ball.

Fiorentina are now playing a 4-3-3, and the action happened down the other side. Alessio Cerci stayed high and wide down the right, sometimes moving back with Andrea Dossena, but always positioning himself in a position to counter quickly. Crucially, he was bringing Napoli newcomer Ignacio Fideleff out to the flank. Fideleff made a mistake in midweek, and looked nervous throughout here.

The crucial factor in this game is not the scoreline, or even in the overall balance of play – it’s that Napoli’s shape was properly stretched and brought out of shape, something we’ve rarely seen opposition managers achieve over the last twelve months. A key part of this – although not the only factor – was that they faced a wide front three, quite rare in Serie A.

Fideleff was in such a state that Napoli were frightened to leave him 1 v 1 against Cerci, who had a very good game by showcasing his pace and dribbling ability. As a result, they sometimes had to bring Dossena back to pick up Cerci. With Vargas playing deeper on the other flank and picking up Juan Zuniga, Napoli were left with 4 v 2 (Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Fideleff and Dossan v Cerci and Jovetic.) Campagnaro could have moved forward more to make up the numbers further up the pitch, but Stevan Jovetic’s movement was good, and made him reluctant to come out from the back.

This all took place in a counter-attacking game, so the midfield numbers battle wasn’t the key. Fiorentina had 3 v 2 in that zone, with Marek Hamsik staying quite wide, and dominated possession in the first half. Napoli were happy enough with that, ready to play on the break, but they had two problems: (a) Fiorentina occupied the centre of the pitch well, making it difficult to break through there and (b) Napoli’s wing-backs couldn’t break forward unmarked – Dossena was always looking out for Cerci, whilst Vargas tracked Zuniga – although the Colombian had a good game.

Mazzarri had to make two changes to put Napoli in charge of the game. Fideleff lasted until the 54th minute when he was replaced by Salvatore Aronica, the experienced left-sided defender who plays that role well. That was an indication that Cerci was threatening, but then the next sub, on 72 minutes, was an acceptance that Napoli’s system was failing. Goran Pandev replaced Dossena, with Aronica going to left-back, Zuniga moving back to right-back and Napoli moving to, essentially, a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-4.

That much more naturally matched Fiorentina’s 4-3-3 at the back, and Napoli dominated the final 25 minutes of the game. Cerci wasn’t such a threat and Fiorentina rarely looked like scoring. The only problem was that Zuniga, arguably Napoli’s best player in the game, now had less license to move forward and stretch the play. Napoli are so reliant on their wing-backs to stretch the play and provide overlaps – without them, they looked rather lost.

To summarise – Mazzarri had a dilemma. Play the system which suits his players best, or play the system which was logical for the game? Usually, he’s found away to subtlety move players around within the 3-4-1-2ish base formation, but here he had to move to a back four. Mihajlovic may not have won the game, but he won the tactical battle – no wonder he was so positive about his side’s performance.

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