Chelsea 4-1 Napoli: Napoli unable to defend crosses

March 15, 2012

The starting line-ups

Chelsea produced an impressive display to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals.

Roberto Di Matteo chose a rough 4-2-3-1 system, with Daniel Sturridge wide on the right, and Ramires tucked in on the left.

Walter Mazzarri named his expected side – Juan Zuniga in ahead of Andrea Dossena was the only small debate in his selection. Zuniga got the nod, but then had to move to the right once Christian Maggio picked up an injury, and Dossena came on down the left.

This was an entertaining game with either side being ‘ahead’ in the tie at two separate points – Chelsea came out on top, though it wasn’t a particularly enthralling tactical battle.

Napoli leave two up

The major point of interest in the first half was that Napoli left both Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani very high up the pitch, in a sense replicating the tactics used by Basel last night at Bayern, but also continuing the strategy from the first leg, where Lavezzi played very high up and exploited the space in behind Branislav Ivanovic.

But Lavezzi often remained quite central when Chelsea had the ball – as did Cavani. There was no attempt for Napoli to retreat into the 5-4-1 shape they often form without the ball, presumably as they wanted to offer a continued attacking threat.

To a certain extent they did – Napoli broke well in the first half, although their decision-making in the opposition half was often poor, and a couple of sloppy passes let them down.

But further back it caused problems. Marek Hamsik dropped deep and played as an extra midfielder, but on the opposite flank Napoli had little protection, with Walter Gargano forced to move across to that side. If he couldn’t, then the wing-back would move up the pitch and deal with the danger, and the relevant centre-back would move across into the full-back position. In theory that worked OK, but Napoli were terrible at putting pressure upon the man with the ball in the wide zones. The first goal, for example, came when Ramires was given all the time in the world to put a cross into the box, and Didier Drogba was exactly the man to thrive on this opportunity.

Napoli won 6-3 at the weekend against Cagliari, but all three goals they conceded were headers scored by Joaquin Larrivey, a basic number nine – this is suddenly something they’re vulnerable to (which is bizarre considering their system, which features three centre-backs and decent width on both sides). Morgan De Sanctis also flapped at an early corner, indicating he wasn’t happy with the ball being delivered from wide either.

But the problem continued, with John Terry completely free to head in at the start of the second from a corner. Even the corner had been conceded when Hugo Campagnaro headed behind under no pressure, suggesting poor communication – then from the corner, Gokhan Inler’s marking was non-existent. Lampard’s third came from a penalty, conceded after yet more poor marking from a corner.

Despite this clear weakness and Chelsea taking advantage, the home side weren’t doing their best to exploit the problems. Di Matteo persisted with right-footed Ramires on the left (granted, he provided the assist for the goal, but he’s hardly a classic winger, and certainly not on the left) and Sturridge on the right. Even more strangely, Fernando Torres replaced Sturridge later on, and started off playing on the right – again, he wasn’t likely to provide good service for Drogba.

It took until extra time for Di Matteo to realise the potential. He removed Juan Mata, who had been quiet, and introduced a player comfortable playing down the left, Florent Malouda. Ramires went to the right, and Torres went upfront. 4-4-2. Now Chelsea had two players in more comfortable wide roles, and two strikers in the box to get on the end of crosses. Chelsea were now more direct – see De Sanctis’ error for Torres’ missed open goal (from a narrow angle).

Eventually the fourth did come from a cross, of sorts. The combination of Drogba and Ivanovic wasn’t what the formation had intended, but the move did come after Ramires went down the outside on the right.

Other features

The game wasn’t all about Chelsea delivery from wide areas, of course. Napoli were surprisingly shapeless throughout the game, particularly in extra time when they seemed to tire quickly. Inler’s goal was excellent, but he gave the ball away too often, both with passes and failed dribbles. Walter Gargano was also disappointing, with a pass completion rate down at 67% compared to his usual 82%, although he would argue that his job was to prompt quick attacks with direct passes.

Chelsea did all the physical aspects of the game well – they won over two-thirds of the aerial duels, Ramires provided great energy from midfield and continued driving well into extra-time, and the substitutes gave them more freshness – Napoli’s two (tactical) changes came in extra-time when Chelsea were sitting deep behind the ball, and they didn’t enjoy the benefit of fresh legs.


Napoli broke well in the first quarter of an hour, but even then they didn’t look at their best with the ball. They needed to score in that period, because the constant balls into the box from Chelsea were defended terribly, and the limitations of three fairly average centre-backs (with the slight exception of Paolo Cannavaro) were highlighted. These are midtable Serie A players competing in the knockout round of the Champions League, and unfortunately they weren’t up to scratch. Like Basel, their gameplan depended upon sitting deep then breaking – but you have to be able to deal with the constant pressure, and defend the penalty box well.

However, Drogba was excellent. This was the old-style Drogba – the target of route one balls and crosses compared to the neater, tidier link-up man Andre Villas-Boas wanted:

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