Napoli 3-1 Chelsea: Ivanovic plays high up and Napoli exploit the space in behind him

February 22, 2012

The starting line-ups

Napoli played their classic counter-attacking game to put themselves in a strong position going into the second leg.

Walter Mazzarri was suspended from the touchline, so assistant Nicolo Frustalupi took charge. Morgan De Sanctis returned in goal, Hugo Campagnaro was fit to start, and Juan Zuniga was picked rather than Andrea Dossena on the left.

Andre Villas-Boas left out Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, though the latter replaced Jose Bosingwa early on at left-back. Florent Malouda got a surprise start (though he has played the majority) of games in Europe this season. As expected, Didier Drogba played rather than Fernando Torres, while John Terry was out.


The use of Malouda meant Chelsea could play either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Malouda has sometimes played in the midfield three with Juan Mata out on the left – away at Norwich, for example. But the line-up hinted at a 4-2-3-1 with Malouda left and Mata centrally (Malouda rather than Lampard starting), and that’s the way Chelsea lined up.

The formation probably played into Napoli’s hands, and made the basic tactical battle much less exciting. 3 v 3 at the back for Napoli would have been interesting, but because Chelsea played a 4-2-3-1 and defended with two banks of four, they often looked like 4-4-1-1 without the ball. As a result, Napoli’s midfielders could largely leave Mata to the back three, and it was a simply 3 v 2 situation at the back. With 4 v 4 in midfield and 4 v 3 for Chelsea at the back, the formations were evenly-balanced.

Ivanovic v Lavezzi and Cavani

The game was a clear clash of styles, but the key was a battle in the Chelsea right-back zone. Branislav Ivanovic played an extremely attacking role, pushing very high on the right to allow Daniel Sturridge inside. He saw a lot of the ball, attempting 53 passes (compared to Cole and Bosingwa’s combined 35), but crucially, Ezequiel Lavezzi didn’t track him back all the way. With Napoli’s wing-backs retreating back to form a back five, and the home side playing seven players in predominantly defensive roles, Lavezzi could afford to stay high up the pitch and break into the space Ivanovic had vacated. Furthermore, Edinson Cavani made lots of runs into the left channel, which meant he and Lavezzi overloaded Gary Cahill.

Napoli started very direct and hit lots of long balls from deep into the space between Ivanovic and Cahill, with Lavezzi chasing a long Paolo Cannavaro ball in the first five minutes. That was a warning sign, and there no fewer than seven further crucial incidents that involved Cavani or Lavezzi getting space in behind Ivanovic, or between Ivanovic and Cahill:

10 mins Lavezzi drifted inside, Cavani moved to the left. Gokhan Inler hit a diagonal ball out to Cavani, who brought the ball down well for a one-on-one, and had a shot saved well by Petr Cech’s foot.

38 mins A slightly different scenario – Cavani moves left, then makes a run to take Ivanovic away – Lavezzi cuts inside and scores the first goal.

45 mins Cavani makes a run in behind Ivanovic, gets to Inler’s diagonal ball and turns the ball in for the second.

54 mins Ivanovic is on the halfway line as Napoli break quickly – Cahill is dragged towards Cavani in the centre, Lavezzi is all alone with a great chance to make it 3-1, but fires his shot wide of Cech’s left-hand post.

57 mins Ivanovic is caught high up the pitch at a transition, Napoli break through Lavezzi, and Cahill collects a yellow card after fouling him.

65 mins David Luiz defends poorly and is beaten to the ball by Cavani, but on the opposite flank Ivanovic (again defending much higher than the rest of the back four) allows Lavezzi to sprint past him for an open goal.

80 mins Ivanovic is again too high up the pitch and takes too long to get back and defend a Napoli attack – Marek Hamsik gets space on the left, squares the ball for Christian Maggio, and Cole clears off the line.

All these incidents can be viewed here

Things got better for Chelsea after 74 minutes, when the exhausted Lavezzi was taken off, with Blerim Džemaili replacing him, and playing more as a midfielder than a winger.

It was telling that Napoli created more chances by playing the ball to a position to the left of the pitch:

And maybe also relevant that they made very few interceptions on the right, with Lavezzi able to collect the ball on that flank from very straight passes:

There were, of course, other factors in the game. Chelsea left too many spaces at the back in general, and playing a double pivot of two shuttling players was a surprising move that meant little structure in midfield. The away side were always likely to be vulnerable to quick breaks, but it was amazing how often they were exposed in the same zone of the pitch.


Chelsea basically played the way Napoli would have wanted – they didn’t give them a numerical problem at the back, they committed too many men forward at 0-0 and 0-1 when they should have been patient to prevent Napoli breaking, and they also conceded too many free-kicks – 18 compared to Napoli’s 7.

But the main issue was at right-back, the position Chelsea have struggled in for years. Ivanovic is meant to be the best defensive option there, as a converted centre-back – but whether because of managerial instructions or his own poor positioning, he may have cost Chelsea the tie.

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