Since taking over from Gennarro Gattuso in May 2021, Luciano Spalletti has turned Napoli into one of Serie A’s most formidable units. While a fifth place finish in the 2020-21 season was a fine result for Gli Azzurri, it wasn’t what they had hoped for, nor what they could have achieved. In came Spalletti and POOF(!) the team are now on an unbeaten run at the start of the 2021-22 season, winning seven from seven. After Inter Milan broke Juventus’ long-standing record last season, the Napoli faithful will now be hoping Serie A might be theirs for the taking this year. Here is a tactical analysis of Luciano Spalletti’s new-look Napoli.
system of play: 4-3-3
Under Gattuso, Napoli operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation for thirty-three of the thirty-eight matches. Under Spalletti, Gli Azzurri have taken to a 4-3-3, ramping up their possession, positional play and even their defensive solidity. But many of the principles of play set into motion by Gattuso have remained, including a midfield base of two holding together, and one venturing forward more often.
Lorenzo Insigne is the undeniable star in the team and has made a formidable start to this season, contributing to five goals in seven matches. To his right has been a target man in Victor Osimhen, who strikes a different kind of fear in the opposition from the false-nine-esque Dries Mertens of the past. Matteo Politano fulfills the final role in the attack, operating in a more one-dimensional way to the out-and-in Insigne.Embed from Getty Images
In midfield, the fabulous Fabian Ruiz has been instrumental to Napoli’s tempo and control, and has formed a fantastic triad with Piotr Zielinski and new-boy Andre Anguissa. Zielinski formally played as the attacking midfielder in the team under Gattuso, and has shifted seamlessly to the left of Ruiz this season. Anguissa meanwhile was an excellent signing by Spalletti and co., after his fantastic season for Premier League relegated Fulham. While each of the three offer their own flare and pizzaz, Fabian Ruiz has truly become the key man that makes everything tick. With a mix of Jorginho and Busquets class, the Spaniard has excellently controlled Napoli’s possession, while remaining key in defensive transitions.
In defense, Amir Rrahmani has played a massive role alongside towering defender Kalidou Koulibaly, after taking a year to truly break into the team. Portuguese defender Mario Rui has continued in his stead as the left-back, with Euro 2020 winner Giovanni di Lorenzo continuing as the right-back in the team. The man in between the posts has primarily been 33-year-old David Ospina, but Italian keeper Alex Meret has also competed for a spot. So those are the players within Spalletti’s 4-3-3. But of course, that tells you very little. So let’s break down how this Napoli team play in 2021-22.
possession & controlEmbed from Getty Images
The most striking difference in Spalletti’s Napoli since taking over has been the vast increase in possession and control. No team have kept more of the ball than Spalletti’s side (59.3%) in Serie A this season, and they’ve completed almost 100 more short passes than third-place Sassuolo in just 7 matches. The emphasis has been on quick but careful possession, involving one and two-touch play and balanced width from both sides. And while Napoli often play their possession and counter attacks from out to in and utilize the wide areas, they almost always look for vertical progression. Napoli’s front-men will often position themselves in the same vertical channel as the ball carrier, making looping balls over the top all the more possible, or even just swift passes along the grass. They don’t tend to waste much time by going sideways or backwards, which is essential to quick attacking transitions, and the 18 goals they’ve scored this season.
Spalletti’s approach is evidently centered around attack-minded ‘total football’ – in which they look to keep the ball and take their time in finding the best avenues forward, making the opposition work tirelessly off the ball to have any chance of stopping them. In an exclusive interview done with Serie A in 2020, Spalletti detailed his attacking mindset, and how he always looks for unique solutions to football’s biggest math problem – how to score goals.
building out from the backEmbed from Getty Images
Napoli build out from the back in what closely resembles a 2-4-4 shape. Zielinski often pushes higher than Anguissa and Ruiz to join the front-line as part of a four, looking for space in between the lines and using himself as a distraction for Victor Omishen to roam in deep or pick up the odd long-pass that comes his way. Ruiz and Anguissa on the other hand look to establish close connections with each other, but it is the Spanish midfielder who often controls the direction of the play. The team then use Ruiz’s vision and control in tight spaces along with the two centre-backs to switch play from left to right. Their patience in this regard also works massively in their favour. It’s always a major surprise whenever Ruiz and co. suddenly hit a ball over the top instead for Osimhen to run onto. Given that the Nigerian thrives off of passes into space where he can use his strength to escape, these combinations are often deadly.
Sounds simple so far? Well this is where things start to get complicated. As he often does for Italy, Lorenzo Insigne floats pretty much wherever he pleases, while still maintaining a relatively left-sided role. For Napoli, that can often look almost like a left-sided-central midfielder. The inclination to involve Insigne in the build-up is an intelligent one, given his exceptional poise and tricky footwork that can unlock any opposition defense on the drop of the dime. This is one more reason why Zielinski often operates higher in attack, opening up more space for Insigne to occupy in response. The 30-year-old’s positioning also means that Mario Rui will often be the wider of the two Napoli fullbacks. Rui is more likely to hug the touch-line and stretch the field on the left than Di Lorenzo on the right, but that isn’t to say that Di Lorenzo is necessarily inverted. Switching play from side to side is still an important principle for Spalletti’s side, particularly when they are working their way into the opposition’s half more slowly.
The final note regarding Napoli’s possession and control is that some of their brightest attacking moments come when they turn their patience into SURPRISES, with quick balls over the top from midfield into a runner in behind. Those passes generally happen in the wide half-spaces, where Politano, Zielinski or Osimhen will look to sprint away. The receiving player will then often be close to the box upon picking up the ball, and can then drive a low cross along the grass for another player (usually Osimhen) to tap home. These passes may be done at random moments, but they are highly effective in creating chances for Spalletti’s team. Another interesting thing about Osimhen is that while he is very right-footed, he is quite adept at swiftly cutting back from his right foot, onto the same foot. This can often be very confusing defenders, and a key way in which he is able to draw defenders in and win penalty kicks or fouls for his team. Gli Azzurri have converted six set-piece goals and two penalty kicks so far this season, remaining a constant threat from all attacking situations imaginable.
quickness in transitionEmbed from Getty Images
As possession-based teams often are (see Tuchel’s Chelsea and Pep’s Man City), Napoli are not only excellent at keeping the ball, but winning it back. I personally love to play a press and possess game with the teams that I coach, and it’s no surprise that some of the top managers and top teams in the world feel the same. Napoli are not exactly one of the greatest examples of a high-pressing team, but they certainly excel in winning the ball back in central midfield, and quickly getting back to defend when they lose the ball. Part of that is within their own attacking structures, in which Insigne is often inverted, Zielinski is often in front of the midfield two, and Anguissa and Ruiz – their two best ball winners, operate in close proximity. There’s a lot of noise to sift through in central areas if their opposition are to start a counter-attack, and that’s been a major part of their formidable defensive record this season. Napoli have conceded just 3 goals this season in Serie A, none of which have come on the counter.
But while their defense has been immensely impressive, it’s Spalletti’s clear attacking principles of play that have perhaps been the most immaculate. Napoli play with a quickness in transition like few others can match. Immediately after winning the ball (often already in central areas), they will drive into central channels through one of their silky smooth dribblers. The other attackers around the ball carrier will then make vertical runs off the ball, drawing defenders further and further away from the carrier in the process. It is at that moment where someone like Insigne is able to unleash a cheeky through-ball into space for one of Napoli’s powerful runners, and Gli Azzuri score. Having a burly target man up front also raises the bar from a counter-attacking perspective, as the Nigerian forward can play with his back to goal and hold-up play for others to run in behind, or be the man drifting off a defender’s shoulder. With Osimhen’s size, speed and strength, Napoli can also go directly into the 22-year-old after winning possession, and he can size up defenders and get them on the back-foot instead. Osimhen’s pace is one of the most frightening in the league, and he will often use that to his advantage in knocking the ball ahead of himself (and the defender) and then sprinting onto it before they can even blink an eye.Embed from Getty Images
Then as we’ve already alluded to, Insigne is quite clever with his awareness of space and movement both on and off the ball. The Italian winger will often make a pass toward an open player at the top of the box and sprint in behind the opposition’s back-line for a return. This is deadly in transition, but also in longer spells where the opposition have had time to set up their defense. The quickness of his movement means that a defensive line focused on holding and maintaining their structure are often rooted to the ground and unable to properly track the quick Italian’s movement in behind. Then Napoli not only have Insigne to hit a looping pass into from these situations, but again the big man up top, who can always make himself a nuisance.
defensive structures & pressingEmbed from Getty Images
Throughout all of this, you might have been wondering why this Spalletti inspired Napoli team are being classified as playing 4-3-3, when Zielinski is so clearly pushing up with the attack. That has much more to do with their defensive shape, in which they sit in a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 mid-block. In longer spells without the ball, Zielinski or whomever is fulfilling that role, reverts back into central midfield alongside his two partners. This 4-3-3 defensive structure that gives freedom for one midfielder to push on in attack is becoming more and more common. Manchester City have done it to great effect this season with either Ilkay Gundogan or Kevin de Bruyne pushing ahead of Bernardo and Rodrigo, as have the normally Wilfried Zaha reliant Crystal Palace, who have basically built their attack around Conor Gallagher this season. Napoli do the same with Zielinski, while ensuring the mobility and determination he provides in attack can also be used to their benefit in defense. You might ask – why not just play 4-2-3-1 and then press in a 4-4-2 like most teams with a 2-4-4 attacking shape? The answer is simple, for Napoli it’s about controlling the game in central midfield, and compacting vertical progression. They don’t want to press high and then explode, but rather remain compact, win the ball back and then start their attacks again with patience and coordination.
That can in turn mean the actual 4-3-3 defensive shape is sometimes lost, as Zielinski bounds back into position. Their disorganization was noticeable in this regard against a team of higher quality in Juventus, as it was with deadly counter attacking teams in the Europa League like Leicester City and Spartak Moscow. But when it comes to league play this season, their tally of just three goals conceded speaks for itself.
conclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli have been immensely impressive this season, playing an attractive brand of ‘total football’. Their emphasis on attack and controlling games through their possession has meant that they’ve simultaneously solidified their defense, conceding just 3 goals thus far. If Napoli are to challenge for the title this season, that defensive solidity will need to continue, no matter how fruitful their attack can be with Osimhen and Insigne in full flow.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli this season. Be sure to check out more of our analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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