Napoli 2-1 Manchester City: Cavani double puts Napoli on the verge of qualification

November 23, 2011

The starting line-ups

City dominated possession but Napoli broke typically well to record a crucial victory.

Few managers rotate as little as Napoli – Walter Mazzarri named his usual side and his usual formation, a counter-attacking 3-4-3.

Roberto Mancini went for roughly his usual system too, though Sergio Aguero was only on the bench. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov started rather than Micah Richards and Gael Clichy.

Mazzarri played this match superbly, even if he didn’t really have to vary anything from his ideal strategy. Whilst he’s a master of making slight tweaks to his system in order to exploit a particular weakness in the opponent, this was as pure a counter-attacking 3-4-3 as you’ll find.

City formation

Whilst widely reported that City switched to a 4-4-2 (possibly because that’s what UEFA’s pre-match captions showed), Mancini’s system was not significantly different from how they’ve played throughout this season. Nigel De Jong was the holder, Yaya Toure broke forward ahead to join up with Milner, the attacking central midfielder. David Silva did his usual thing coming in from the right, whilst Mario Balotelli played high up on the left, and Edin Dzeko was upfront.

It’s difficult to understand how that could be interpreted as a 4-4-2 – even if Balotelli was playing as a striker (which he wasn’t, though of course he drifted into goalscoring positions, from where he tapped in City’s equaliser) – who was playing on the left? Certainly not Milner, who was in the centre, nor Silva who was clearly on the right.

Of course, when you play with two attack-minded wide players plus one striker dropping off into the hole, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 are, if not interchangeable, not significantly different. The shape City played in the 6-1 thumping of Manchester United, for example, could be defined either way – especially if you’re looking at their shape with and without the ball. If anything, the use of Milner here, in the role broadly filled by Aguero in that game, indicates that this clearly was more of a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-4-2.

Indeed, the use of Balotelli wide was very deliberate by Mancini. In the first game, Napoli loved the fact that Silva and Samir Nasri both came into the middle of the pitch – they were too narrow, the Napoli wing-backs could follow, and they defended very well by staying narrow. As Fiorentina showed (albeit whilst only getting a draw), the way to cause Napoli’s system problems is by playing a player very high up on the flank, that neither the centre-backs or the wing-backs can naturally track. That was presumably the point of Balotelli playing there (rather than Nasri or Milner, fo rexample) and Adam Johnson also got a huge amount of time much later in the game on the flank, though his crossing was poor.

UEFA.com's average positions from the first half - Napoli a very defined 3-4-3, City's much looser but with Dzeko upfront alone, Balotelli on the left and Silva on the right

Nature of the game

As it happens, overall formations weren’t a key feature of the game. A formation match-up tends to be more important when the sides both want to play proactive football – particularly when they press and the importance of a spare man in midfield can be huge. With Napoli sitting back and City recording 62% of possession, it was more about how City could break Napoli down when the home side had stacks of players sitting behind the ball.

Here, City’s main problem was that they lacked a deep-lying central playmaker, a talented midfielder who could play key passes from the centre of midfield. That is the missing part of their jigsaw – and with De Jong and Toure getting plenty of time on the ball, they were the key players in helping to break down Napoli. The benefit of a creative player in that position is two-fold – as well as the obvious benefit of him helping to create chances, he might also force an opponent towards him to close down, therefore leaving space higher up the pitch for an opponent to exploit. Napoli didn’t need to close down De Jong or Toure, and so could remain compact.

City prone to counters

Mancini knows as well as anyone how quickly and effectively Napoli can break (effectively after the first game) – so it was surprising to see that both full-backs were given license to push forward at the same time. Kolarov was extremely attack-minded down the left, but one might have expected Zabaleta to stay much deeper – and a secondary question concerns why Mancini would pick Zabaleta over Richards if he wanted such an offensive force down that side. Zabaleta is more trusted defensively but was playing very high up – maybe Mancini simply wanted Zabaleta against Ezequiel Lavezzi, a man he doubtless knows well from international duty.

To prevent the counters, De Jong played remarkably deep in front of the back four, but by the time Napoli’s attacks reached him, they were up at full speed and broke quickly past. It is usually one of the Napoli ‘4′ that wins the ball and starts the counters, and they could storm forward and play quick passes with one of the front three to create a chance.

There was no surprise that De Jong was played in that role after Gareth Barry’s mistake in the first match between the two, but he couldn’t single-handedly compensate for both the full-backs pushing on. Marek Hamsik’s early header, for example, came when both Kolarov and Zabaleta were caught ahead of the ball when City lost possession. The first goal came from a poorly-defended corner, but the attack to win the corner in the first place had been a counter-attack.

1-0

At 1-0 down City had to push forward and were more vulnerable to breaks, and were fortunate that Salvatore Aronica’s poor clearance resulted in the equaliser. It’s difficult to know how to attack against a team, like Napoli, who want you to leave spaces at the back – the real answer is probably to try and counter-attack yourself, but Napoli sat deeper when ahead so this wasn’t possible.

Balotelli was the one player who looked likely to make something happen – Christian Maggio was often overloaded with Kolarov coming forward and Balotelli could sneak inside unmarked – watch his movement in from the flank in the run-up to the goal, and it’s notable that Napoli don’t really have a set player tracking him.

Second half

An early Napoli goal meant City were back to square one, and Mancini’s side played poorly in the second half and rarely looked like scoring – in fact, Napoli probably had the better chances on the break through Hamsik and Maggio. One of their star men was Walter Gargano, who completed all his tackles and the majority of his passes.

City’s strategy seemed confused – Balotelli wandered infield and stopped stretching the play, although did provide pace over the top for longer balls. It was hugely surprising that Mancini waited until the 70th minute to make his first change, Nasri on for De Jong – that was 21 minutes after Napoli had gone 2-1 up. In those 21 minutes, City recorded just one shot – a Silva effort from long-range that was well off target.

Aguero arrived on 81 minutes – so late that he asked to check the fourth official’s watch as he came on and looked surprised at the time – for Dzeko. With Napoli camped in their own box Dzeko’s aerial ability (even if he’s not quite a target man) would have been useful – perhaps Milner or Toure could have been sacrificed instead. The third change, on 85 minutes, saw Johnson replace Zabaleta and Milner go to right-back – a good final roll of the dice, but it would have been nice to see Johnson on the left able to go down the line and cross, rather than always having to come inside.

Napoli replaced Inler and Cavani when they tired, but otherwise maintained the same system throughout.

Conclusion

What could Mancini have done differently? He simultaneously could have been more cautious and more attacking. That sounds like a contradiction, but he could have been more cautious with the positioning of his full-backs early on – he let Napoli break into too much space and this set the tone for the first half. He then could have been braver with his substitutions – all three came very late.

The lack of a key creator from central midfield was vital, however. City have all the talent in the world in the final third, but it’s arguable that, in Europe, an intelligent ‘regista’ is the most important weapon a side needs.

Napoli were excellent and yet there’s little to say about them – they defended doggedly, countered quickly and Cavani finished ruthlessly, the features we’ve come to expect. Serie A opponents seem to have got wise to Napoli, but in Europe their unusual strategy looks like it will cause a surprise.

Napoli 2-1 Manchester City: Cavani double puts Napoli on the verge of qualification

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