Napoli welcomed Manchester City to the San Paolo in what was an eagerly awaited encounter between two of Europe’s most in form teams; both top of their respective leagues. City went into the game knowing that a win would guarantee qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League with two games to spare whilst Napoli needed the victory to keep their hopes alive.
Sarri made two changes to the side that lost the first leg at the Etihad, Jorginho and Allan replacing Diawara and Zielinski in midfield, with the rest of the team remaining unchanged. Guardiola made three changes to the team that won the reverse fixture, with Danilo, Gundogan and Aguero coming in for Walker, David Silva and Gabriel Jesus.
Reina / Hysaj – Koulibaly – Albiol – Ghoulam / Jorginho – Allan – Hamsik / Insigne – Callejon – Mertens
Manchester City: 4-3-3
Ederson / Danilo – Stones – Otamendi – Delph / Fernandinho – Gundogan – De Bryune / Sterling – Sané – Aguero
CITY’S BUILD UP PROBLEMS AND NAPOLI’S EARLY CONTROL
Napoli began the game aggressively, pressing from the front and constantly disrupting City’s build-up play. In the first leg, a huge part of Man City’s dominance was their ability to progress in a stable and clean manner from defence, but Sarri sought to challenge this and set up his team to press in an asymmetrical 4-1-3-2 shape.
The centre-forward (Mertens) would press the centre-backs with a curved run and would be supported by the ball near winger (either Callejon or Insigne depending on if the ball was on the right or left side). This was to direct City’s build up towards the touch line. The ball far winger would tuck in and complete the second line but spring out to press intensely once the ball was passed to the full-back on his side of the pitch.
Seeing as Fernandinho rarely dropped between the centre-backs, Hamsik would step up to press the Brazilian from his blind-side. In the moments when Delph performed his inverted full-back role, Allan could be seen stepping up to him in order to allow Hamsik to maintain his coverage of Fernandinho.
Napoli in the 4-1-3-2 shape. Stones and Otamendi are too close and so the Napoli first line isn’t overly stretched. Delph playing as an inverted full-back also contributed to the narrow build-up structure which made it easy for Napoli to generate pressing access.
This man orientation coupled with the shorter distances between City’s centre-backs meant that Guardiola’s men were often forced into attempting difficult longer passes to progress the ball. The long balls put City’s attacking players in positions of qualitative inferiority as Napoli dominated such aerial duels, recovered the ball and spent the opening twenty minutes camped inside City’s half.
City had over 80% of their touches inside their own half.
City’s opening 20 minutes heat map.
For their part, City also pressed out of their base 4-1-4-1 shape into a 4-4-2 shape with Gundogan regularly joining Aguero in the first line to press the Napoli centre-backs. The ball-side winger would mark the Napoli’s ball-side central midfielder, while De Bryune would push up to Jorginho and the ball-far winger would indent to protect the half space.
City in their own 4-4-2 pressing shape. Gundogan steps up to press Albiol with De Bryune picking up Jorginho and Sané guarding the half-space. Note that Ghoulam is free on the left and will have time on the ball if he receives it.
This usually left the ball-far full-back (usually Ghoulam since Napoli would start their build-up on the right to open up space for him on the left) free to receive. However, City were counting on trapping Napoli’s build up against the touchline; but Napoli’s left sided combination play was excellent, allowing them to break through the press on a number of occasions.
#passmap of Napoli courtesy of @11tegen11 showing their strong left-sided focus
In response to this, Pep instructed Delph and Danilo to start playing more “orthodox” full-back roles hugging the touch line in order to stretch Napoli’s defensive shape. This allowed them to receive and play vertical passes into Sané or Sterling. The wingers would then use their individual dribbling ability to move through Napoli’s pressure and play back centrally for De Bryune and Gundogan to create.
Though City had more of a focus on chance creation via the less effective wide areas in the final third, this strategy allowed them to advance the ball much more effectively. Once they began to break Napoli’s press more often they began to establish a dominant presence in the final third – even if it didn’t lead to a plethora of chances created.
Another factor that aided City in getting back into the game was that Gundogan began making dropping movements deep in the left half-space to aid in the build-up. This had two effects: Gundogan could become the free man in the build-up, or if Jorginho followed him, then space would open up for a direct pass into Aguero who would then play a first-time lay off to one of the central midfielders who could advance with a forwards facing field of vision.
Gundogan drops behind Napoli’s first line but is inaccessible due to being in the cover shadow of his marker. However, Aguero also drops and performs a lay off to the now free Gundogan who can turn and drive at the Napoli defence.
Defensively, City were aided by the injury to Ghoulam. The right footed Hysaj was moved to the left back role and severely hampered Napoli’s attempts to combine past City’s pressure on that side.
After this, City scored from a well worked corner and went into the break on level terms, before taking the lead through another corner. From then on, City become more patient and deliberate with their passing, depending on constant horizontal circulation to keep Napoli at bay. The wide positioning of the fullbacks made it difficult for Napoli to generate clean access and City were able to push the Partenopei back and play inside their half while finishing off the match with two goals on the counter.
This was an excellent game on all counts. It had goals and unrivaled tactical nous; Napoli set up very well to counteract City’s initial plan and deservedly took the lead but Pep adjusted his plan brilliantly to get us back in the game. Our multifaceted attacking threat (set pieces, and counter attacks) proved invaluable in the end. The win means City have now qualified for the knockout stages with two games to spare, but leaves Napoli on the brink. They now face life in the Europa League but their attacking play is very impressive and a joy to watch; hopefully this isn’t the end of their Champions League campaign.