The Champions League returns to the Camp Nou for a final time this season before the competition heads to the neutral venues. Quique Setién’s Barcelona will lock horns with Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli in what will be a clinching encounter. In this piece, we present a tactical analysis of the strengths, weaknesses and potential areas of exploit of Napoli.
Ahead of Saturday’s second leg of the Champions League round of 16, Napoli’s visit to the Camp Nou will see Quique Setién face a manager with polar opposite footballing philosophies. Possessional brilliance versus positional discipline, patient build-ups versus potent counter-attacking, Quique Setién versus Gennaro Gattuso, round two.
Albeit the massive difference in tactical approaches, all that separates the two teams is an Antoine Griezmann away goal. The hosts are aware of their lacklustre performance in the first leg that saw them bring back a 1–1 draw. Meanwhile, Gattuso knows that one goal is sufficient to kill Barça’s slender advantage.
Having sacked Carlo Ancelotti midseason due to disappointing results and a weakening relationship with the chief Aurelio De Laurentiis, the expectations were low when Gattuso took charge. Since replacing his former coach and mentor of the AC Milan days, Gennaro Gattuso had transformed Napoli with a different approach. The free-flowing attacking football brought Napoli nothing in terms of silverware under both Maurizio Sarri and Ancelotti. The players were frustrated to be left empty-handed at the end of every season.
Despite playing some of the most beautiful football in Italy, they had nothing to show for it. And this is what helped Gattuso convince the board and the players of his pragmatic approach. Indeed, Gli Azzurri’s entire philosophy wasn’t altered. However, the focus shifted from exquisite unlocking of the opposition backlines to developing an absolute defence first. With Kalidou Koulibaly as the focal point of the defence, it was astonishing to see Napoli struggle to remain resolute at the back.
Gennaro Gattuso’s philosophy as a manager differs a lot from the blood and courage that defined him as a player | Photo by Emilio Andreoli via Getty Images
Since then, Napoli’s identity has seen modification from a defensive perspective. Especially when it comes to being focused while holding the shape. The result of prioritising stability at the back saw them lift the Coppa Italia immediately after the restart of football. They faced Inter Milan in the semi-final, which was followed by a final against Juventus. Gattuso’s men were patient across both legs and frustrated Antonio Conte’s Inter. A combination of opportunistic clinical attacking and focussed defending helped them edge Inter out.
The plan versus Juventus remained the same. Maurizio Sarri’s men could have taken another extra 90 minutes past the existing 180, and they wouldn’t have broken down Napoli’s defence. Koulibaly has been unbeatable in the air, and due to that, teams struggle to play direct football when they face him. Fortunately for Barça, the focus in attack isn’t on winning aerial duals.
When Carlo Ancelotti was the manager, he played with a variety of shapes. But the one which the Italian preferred to stick with was a 4–4–2. Unfortunately for them, this shift in the formation didn’t help them as their forwards prefer to drift wide and cut inside, instead of waiting for crosses. Gattuso realised this and immediately reverted to the 4–3–3 that they thrive with. Nevertheless, despite this system being a highly attacking one at first glance, Gennaro made a tweak to it.
While building the attacks, they play in a 4–3–3 where Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón like to drag defenders wide before playing low cutbacks to Dries Mertens. That said, the modification is more evident when they are defending without the ball. Forming two banks of four, in a 4–4–2 they ensure that the midfield is packed with an extra overload to prevent ease of flow for the opposition. At times, the midfield even becomes a five-man one, with a sole attacker waiting up top.
Napoli’s eternal duo Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne will look to lead their team again | Photo by Francesco Pecoraro via Getty Images
Once possession is regained, the defensive formation disengages back to a 4–3–3 with the ball being distributed quickly across the flanks. A majority of Napoli’s players have a relatively small frame in general. To recompense the lack of aerial presence while attacking, though, their footballers are gifted with pace, close control, and technique. The likes of Mertens and Insigne can bend the ball fantastically to find the net. Their only source of height is Arkadiusz Milik, who always delivers when Gattuso brings him on from the bench.
The gameplan for Napoli is far simpler than one may imagine. All they need is one goal, so they won’t be all over Barça’s defence. They will wait patiently to hit the Catalans at the right time. Quique Setién, on the other hand, will have to be wary of the fact that any more than one away goal by Napoli would make the task herculean. He would have to ensure that his side takes advantage of the possessional upper hand.
Player to watch
Napoli has a variety of quality players that Setién’s side should keep tabs on. But ultimately, the man to watch out is undoubtedly Lorenzo Insigne. Having witnessed the brilliance of one little man through Lionel Messi, Barça fans should be aware that height means nothing when feet can produce magic. There were initial fears for the Italian outfit over Lorenzo’s fitness. Nonetheless, the reports now claim that he is ready to start the game.
With 8 goals and 6 assists in the Serie A, Insigne is second in the club’s top scorers for this season domestically. While the predatory instinct of Milik has helped him score more goals, Insigne offers a lot more to the attack. He can dribble past players with ease, sometimes even taking a hit or two for the team. He is one among the several outlets for Napoli to ease off the pressure on their backline.
Tiny but immensely prolific and talented | Photo by Francesco Pecoraro via Getty Images
While he has a telepathic connection with Mertens, Lorenzo should not be let anywhere near Barcelona’s box. He can wrap his foot around the ball to curl efforts even in the acutest angles. Should Gattuso prefer to start both Insigne and Mertens, Barça will have to worry about the play within the lines. The midfield that sits behind is equally competent. Fabián Ruiz and Piotr Zieliński are fabulous and sought after by many top clubs across Europe.
The culés‘ Achilles heel is the inconsistency observed with the full-backs. Lorenzo will go head to head with Barcelona’s right-back, and irrespective of whether it’s Nélson Semedo or Sergi Roberto, the task is challenging.
Before worrying about the quarter-finals that’s most likely against Bayern Munich, Barcelona shouldn’t be overconfident on the opposition that visits them first. Indeed, the record at the Camp Nou has been spotless for the azulgranas in the Champions League. But that doesn’t mean anything as we have already seen numerous upsets in the past. Fortunately, they will be relieved to play this second-leg clash at home, which gives them the comfort factor.
Should Napoli manage to get the first goal, the entire tie opens up, and Barcelona will be on pressure. And so, they must be as strong as possible across all departments. Laziness up top and the statics of the midfield was exploited numerous times since the restart. With Messi already saying that they should raise their game to stand a chance, Setién will have to pull a rabbit out of his hat and ensure that he displays superiority over Gattuso tactically.
If Barça play to Napoli’s strengths of allowing them to absorb pressure by sitting back in a low block, the damage they cause on the counter may come too late to respond. The Champions League is finally back, and it’s all in the hands of Barcelona’s collective to ensure that they book their trip to Portugal for the rest of the knockouts.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.