Match Coverage

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 2-1 Napoli – Guardiola edges Sarri in a game of two halves

Manchester City and Napoli went head to head in what was probably the most exciting match up of Matchday 3 in the Champions League as the Italian league leaders led by Maurizio Sarri were pitted against the English league leaders led by Pep Guardiola. The game promised to be a tactical culinary masterpiece that would tempt even the most jaded footballing palate (I’m looking at you here Jose).

Guardiola opted for the same starting eleven that dispatched Stoke City at the weekend but Sarri chose to make two changes to their preferred starting eleven; Diawara came in for Jorginho in the pivot position while Zielinski completed the midfield trio with Allan on the bench.


Manchester City: 4-3-3
Ederson / Walker – Stones – Otamendi – Delph / Fernandinho – Silva – De Bryune / Sané – Sterling – Jesus

Napoli: 4-3-3
Reina / Hysaj – Albiol – Koulibaly – Ghoulam / Diawara – Zielinski – Hamsik / Callejon – Mertens – Insigne


In the build up to this game Pep spoke of how Napoli can “kill you with the high press” so it was interesting to see how City would build up and how Sarri’s side would attempt to halt progression. In the first phase of build-up, City shuttled between a 2-3 and a 3-2 shape; this depended a lot on the positioning of Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph and left them with a 3-2-2-3 shape across the pitch. To counteract this, Napoli pressed in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Mertens putting selective pressure on the City centre-backs while the midfielders and wide forwards would maintain a pressing distance to the City full-backs to avoid easy wing progression.

City in their 3-2 build-up shape and Napoli pressing. Delph in the circle has dropped to join Fernandinho centrally and has been tracked by Callejon opening the wing for Silva to enable City play around the Napoli block.

In the second image, City has successfully broken the first line of the press by using Delph and are able to find Silva who was positioned outside Napoli’s midfield block.

When City were able to bypass Napoli’s high pressing, the Partenopei would retreat into their own half and defend in a 4-5-1 mid-block with the wingers tucking alongside the midfield to create the five man chain in order to close passing lanes and force City backwards.

Napoli in their 4-5-1 shape

As the full-backs were key in breaking Napoli’s high press, so were the wingers key in Manchester City’s attacking principle; Sané and Sterling stayed very wide on the last line of Napoli‘s defense, this was to exploit the wide space due to the narrow and central oriented nature of Napoli’s defending. To do this, City would usually build up on one side before moving the ball and quickly switching it to the other side to create 1 vs 1 situations on the far side (“you have the ball on one side, to finish on the other”). This created a dilemma for Napoli; if the full-backs stayed close to the wingers, then space would open up in the half spaces for the free 8’s, on the other hand, staying central and closer to their centre-backs would enable the City wingers to receive and advance towards them with a dynamic advantage. This was how City’s first goal came about.

As the ball is switched to Sterling by Delph, Ghoulam goes out to engage him, opening space between him and Koulibaly for De Bryune to run into.

City have moved the Napoli block to the right with the first switch of play, notice how Silva and Jesus’ half-space positioning forces Hysaj to close centrally leaving Sané (in the circle) in acres of space.

As Hysaj goes out to press Sané, space opens up in behind and Sané finds Silva with a through ball who cuts it back for Sterling to finish after the initial block on Walker’s shot.


With all their good attacking play, City’s dominant first half showing was down in no small part to their pressing scheme which denied Napoli central access and forced them to attempt to build up through their fullbacks with long balls. City pressed in a 4-3-3 shape with Jesus starting the press from the centre-backs and continuing to press onto Reina while keeping the centre-back in his cover shadow.

Jesus presses all the way to Reina while keeping Albiol in his cover shadow, Sterling orients himself to Koulibaly while Silva and KDB pick up Diawara and Hamsik. The only free player is Ghoulam and Reina tries to find him with a lofted pass, but Jesus presses intensely and the distance the ball travels allows Walker to sprint forward and challenge Ghoulam upon receiving ending in a throw in for City.

When City were unable to win the ball or outright stop progression with their initial press, they would settle for directing Napoli’s build-up towards the full-backs and pin them to one side with some strong passing lane-oriented pressing.

Jesus presses the ball carrier while cutting off the escape route and all immediate passing options are covered trapping the build-up on the touchline, this provokes the long ball towards the front line ending in a recovery for City.


In the second half, Napoli began pressing more intensely and rattled City, in some build-up moments, Hamsik would leave the midfield line to join Mertens in pressing the City centre-backs and force the build-up wide.

Hamsik has joined the first line to press Stones forcing the pass out wide, as he recovers his position, Insigne moves out to press Walker while keeping KDB in his cover shadow.

Napoli began committing more numbers to the press and the increased access hampered City’s clean build-up and even gave them one of their best chances of the game which they would have scored bar a block from Stones.

This is moments before the chance that Stones blocks, see how Napoli have committed three players to the high press, matching City in their own box. Fernandinho is also picked up by Hamsik.

Hamsik joins the press and Fernandinho is surrounded leading to the ball loss and the resultant chance.


This game certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of entertainment and tactical nuance. The result leaves City firmly in control of the group and needing just a point in Italy to achieve qualification.

Tactically, City were excellent especially in the first half with their pressing and build up and how they managed to manipulate Napoli’s defense. On the other hand, the drop in intensity in the second half was crucial in letting Napoli back in the game and like on Saturday against Stoke, we conceded sloppy goals. On the whole Pep can be very happy both with the performance and the result and will simply look to improve on it. For us City fans, the sky is blue and we look menacing.

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