Napoli 2-1 Dortmund: Higuain & Insigne exploit Dortmund’s failure to heed their warnings

September 18, 2013

The starting line-ups

Gonzalo Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne scored the goals from set-piece situations – but they had been the most threatening players in open play, too.

Rafael Benitez’s line-up was as expected, with Insigne’s role on the left probably the biggest news on the teamsheet.

Jurgen Klopp is without long-term absentee Lukasz Piszczek at right-back, and the excellent central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan. Kevin Grosskreutz and Nuri Sahin played in those roles, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was only on the bench.

The teams were evenly matched for long spells of the first half, but Napoli increasingly threatened in two particular ways – and they proved the game-changing situations.

Similar systems

In formation terms this might have been a more interesting contest last season, with Napoli’s three-man defence. Instead, this was a relatively standard match between two 4-2-3-1 systems.

Arguably the major difference, in terms of pure positioning, was in the number ten role, where Henrik Mkhitarayan got back into midfield more to help pressure Napoli in midfield. Marek Hamsik was a little more passive as Napoli looked like a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase, and he had little impact because Sven Bender followed him very closely.

Pressing v structure

There was also an overall difference in the sides’ attitude without the ball. While Napoli retreated into a boxy shape reminiscent of previous Benitez sides, Dortmund were more proactive high up the pitch. The pressing wasn’t constant and not always particularly intense, but closing down high up the pitch seems to cause Italian sides significant difficulties in Europe, because they’re relatively unaccustomed to the concept in Serie A. That’s something of a generalisation, but rooted in truth – see Juve’s struggles against Bayern last season in another Serie A v Bundesliga clash.

Therefore, Napoli conceded possession cheaply a couple of times early on – Miguel Britos was caught on the ball by Mkhitaryan as Dortmund nearly created a decent chance, and later Britos was put in difficulties because of Christian Maggio’s unnecessary lateral pass across the defence, and was booked for fouling Jakub Błaszczykowski.

Width v narrow combinations

Another contrast was in use of width. Napoli seemed keen to exploit the full width of the pitch in the opening stages, with Jose Callejon out on the right and not particularly involved. Insigne always drifted inside, but his starting position was also very wide.

On the other hand, Dortmund’s ‘wide’ attackers worked diagonally, as usual, cutting inside to combine with Mkhitaryan and Robert Lewandowski. Neither side created many opportunities in open play during the first half, but Dortmund’s build-up play was probably better – one excellent passing combination between four players cut through the centre of the Napoli side, and Lewandowski failed to take advantage of a fine chance.

The key issue #1: set-pieces

The worst thing about Dortmund’s play was their set-pieces – Reus repeatedly got his delivery completely wrong. In stark contrast, Napoli caught Dortmund out with a short corner early in the game – when Insigne curled a shot just wide.

Dortmund conceded the opener from a very similar situation. Klopp’s side have been defending corners particularly poorly this season, and while Dortmund were disadvantaged by the fact that Neven Subotic was only just regaining his position having been off the pitch because of a head injury, Marcel Schmelzer’s marking was very poor as Higuain headed in from Zuniga’s cross.

Higuain was also first to a set-piece later in the first half, nearly flicking it into the path of Britos at the far post.

The key issue #2: Higuain in behind

Napoli’s other main approach was simple – Gonzalo Higuain would stay high up the pitch against the Dortmund backline, then sprint into the channels in behind. His link-up play was barely obvious in this contest, and often when charging towards goal he found himself with absolutely no support. He received 22 passes but only successfully knocked the ball onto another teammate nine times, instead aiming for goal immediately.

Nevertheless, it proved an effective approach – Subotic had to make a desperate last man tackle in the opening stages, when Mats Hummels was unable to stop Higuain.

That move came from a Valon Behrami pass as soon as Napoli had won possession – it was as much as clearance as it was a through-ball, and it seemed Napoli wanted to make Dortmund’s defence turn immediately. That was also clear from how quickly Pepe Reina thumped the ball downfield once he’d claimed a cross.

Bender often dropped back to make Dortmund a 3-3-3-1 in possession, but when he returned to midfield, Dortmund often lost the ball and their centre-backs were too far apart to tackle Higuain

Dortmund’s back four/three exposed

In part, Higuain seemed to find so much space because of the flexible nature of Dortmund’s defence. One of the central midfielders often dropped into the centre of the defence to create a 3 v 2 around Hamsik and Higuain, allowing Dortmund to pass the ball out easily from the back.

This almost went dramatically wrong on 14 minutes, however, when Bender dropped between Subotic and Hummels, allowing them to spread wide. Once the ball was passed into the midfield, Bender moved forward again – but this left a gaping gap between the centre-backs, spotted by Gokhan Inler as he won possession. His through-ball forced Roman Weidenfeller off his line to sweep up.

That was a forewarning of the incident shortly before half-time, that completely changed the balance of the game. Hummels had just been forced off with a thigh injury, and was surprisingly replaced by Aubemeyang, a wide forward. Dortmund were still reorganising after that attacking change, with Bender seemingly dropping in to centre-back – and immediately the lack of understanding at the back was costly.

Again, a central midfielder, Sahin, dropped deep to briefly form a back three, but Dortmund once again lost possession almost immediately.

Now, Higuain was (slightly bizarrely) challenging two natural midfielders – Sahin and Bender – to an Insigne through-ball. Weidenfeller came off his line to intervene, handled the ball, and was dismissed.

Second half

Dortmund were forced to reorganise, with sub goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak on to replace Blaszczykowski, and Dortmund now a simple 4-4-1-1, with Mkhitaryan dropping into a deeper central midfield position.

At 1-0 up, and playing against ten men, Napoli controlled the game well in the second half. They retained possession for long periods and switched the play neatly from flank to flank, forcing Dortmund to work hard in order to retain their solid defensive positioning.


The key player in the second half was Insigne, who darted off the line and into an inside-left position. Napoli had looked to play through him all night, possibly because of Grosskreutz being an uncomfortable right-back – and it was interesting that the game’s two most frequent passing combinations both involved playing the ball to Insigne.

Both Insigne and Juan Zuniga were inconsistent when trying to beat opponents…

…but the pressure mounted down that side, with Insigne beating a man to create a scrappy chance for Hamsik early in the second half. Insigne eventually scored the second goal, and put the game beyond Dortmund, with a brilliant 30-yard free-kick.

Dortmund’s best player in the second half was Aubameyang, who hit the bar from distance and created a fine chance for Reus, who completely mis-hit his shot. Zuniga’s bizarre late own goal created a tense finish, but Napoli deserved the victory.


The difference in style – dropping deep versus pressing, width versus narrowness – helped shape the opening stages but didn’t prove decisive.

Instead, the game came down to three things Napoli did well. First, they were much more efficient at set-pieces – compare Reus’ terrible free-kicks to Napoli’s clever short corners. Second, Higuain ran in behind the defence to collect quick through-balls, which proved particularly effective when Dortmund had briefly shifted to a back three in possession. Third, Insigne found space in the inside-left channel, and ran with the ball on a night when Hamsik and Callejon were quiet.

The most frustrating thing, from Dortmund’s point of view, was that they had warnings about both the opening goal (they’d already been caught out at a short corner) and the sending-off incident (they’d already looked vulnerable when Higuain sprinted in behind when a midfielder had dropped into the back). Had they learned their lessons from those incidents, they may not have lost.

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