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Tactical analysis: A look at Barcelona rivals SSC Napoli

What team and tactics will Barça face on Saturday? A detailed tactical analysis of rivals SSC Napoli

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Francesco Pecoraro via Getty Images

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.

Overview

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 Napoli tactical analysis

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.

Tactics

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. 

Dries Mertens Lorenzo Insigne Napoli tactical analysis

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.

Lorenzo Insigne Napoli tactical analysis

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.

Conclusion

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.


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I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona

Anurag Agate

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Photo via Imago

The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.

El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.

The systems

Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.

In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.

In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.

Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.

Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.

Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.

Madrid’s defensive organization

After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.

The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.

Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.

Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.

What went wrong for Barcelona?

Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.

One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.

The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.

Statistical analysis

Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.

As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.

With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.

Conclusion

This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.

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