In what was an exciting match-up between two of the most thrilling teams to watch in Europe, Napoli hosted Manchester City at the iconic Stadio San Paolo in the heart of Naples. Napoli’s loss at the Etihad Stadium made the Italians desperate to seek out a positive result for a potential spot in the Round of 16. Meanwhile, Guardiola’s men, feeding off the amazing form they’re passing through, were keen on guaranteeing an early qualification to avoid any possible obstacles along the way.
The build-up to the match was nothing short of ultimate sportsmanship between the two head coaches. “I’ve always liked Guardiola’s football philosophy. At times it borders on genius,” Sarri mentions when asked about the Catalan. “Probably the best team I’ve faced in my career,” stated Guardiola after their match at the Etihad, highlighting the respect Sarri’s Napoli have garnered over the last two seasons under the Italian coach. This type of respect and mutual recognition gives thought to how highly each thinks of the other which is rarely seen nowadays on the biggest stage of them all, the Champions League.
Napoli (4-3-3) | Manager: Maurizio Sarri
25. Reina – 23. Hysaj, 33. Albiol, 26. Koulibaly, 31. Ghoulam – 17. Hamsik, 8. Jorginho, 5. Allan – 24. Insigne, 14. Mertens, 7. Callejon.
Manchester City (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola
31. Ederson – 3. Danilo, 5. Stones, 30. Otamendi, 18. Delph – 17. De Bruyne, 25. Fernandinho, 8. Gundogan – 7. Sterling, 10. Aguero, 19. Sane.
Sarri fielded his strongest XI starting with the regular back four of Hysaj-Albiol-Koulibaly-Ghoulam, sitting in front of them is the tempo controller Jorginho who’s extremely close to a Brazil call-up with Tite. Allan acted as the box-to-box midfielder on the right side and Hamsik as the playmaker on the left side; having the freedom to barge forward and overload City’s defense. In attack, the fluid trio of Insigne-Mertens-Callejon featured up front with the wingers tracking back City’s fullbacks in case of overlaps.
On the other hand, Guardiola made 3 changes to his regular lineup, in defense Walker was replaced by Danilo, Gundogan replaced David Silva, and Aguero replaced Gabriel Jesus. The rest of the defensive line featured the two goal scorers for the night Stones and Otamendi; with Delph as left-back.
In center of the field, De Bruyne and Fernandinho were chosen next to Gundogan; De Bruyne was the player responsible for carrying the ball into advanced areas whereas Fernandinho stayed back to provide cover. Spearheading the attack was Aguero who’ll remember this night forever as he became City’s all-time leading goal-scorer, flanked by Sterling and Sane who were instructed to stay wide at all times during attack.
Napoli takes control:
Napoli started the match on full throttle as they pushed their lines forward applying high pressure on City’s defenders while blocking access to the middle. It worked well as we noticed a 20-minute domination from Sarri’s men preventing City to reach Reina’s goal in the tendency they are known for.
At time, City managed to circulate the ball in the first third as shown in the heat map but without reaching the attackers due to the high intensity from Napoli’s players.
The above image is the first instance where City had the ball in front of their own box. The pressing trigger was Stones turning his back towards his goalkeeper, hence reducing his field view completely. What followed is the aggressive first line press from Mertens and Insigne; Mertens covering Otamendi in his shadow and Insigne sticking to Danilo. Behind them came Hamsik pressing Fernandinho, Allan covering both Gundogan and Sane in case the pass was played to any of the two, and Callejon covering Delph who drops into midfield to aid in possession, a trademark move from Guardiola’s teams.
At times though, the continuous ball circulation from City was too much for Napoli to handle. As we will see in the video, one lapse of concentration costed them a dangerous chance due to the remarkable off the ball run from De Bruyne into space vacated by Sterling.
Made using TacticalPad
When looking at Napoli in the above animation, you see a well-rehearsed unit moving around the pitch closing spaces for the opposition. For example, focus on how Insigne and Hamsik take turns in closing down the most dangerous City player De Bruyne when the ball reaches Stones and Danilo. However, at the very first moment of miscommunication between Hamsik and Ghoulam, De Bruyne broke free intelligently. What should’ve been done is Ghoulam sticking to his wing where Hamsik quickly closes down Sterling, not worrying about the center since Jorginho is already behind him.
Sarri’s signature tactic; 3rd man runs:
When a pass is played from A to B, C is already on the move behind the opposition’s line of sight. That’s what made Napoli so dangerous, especially the left flank of Ghoulam-Hamsik-Insigne. Have a look at the animation below and focus on how each player moves to vacate space for the other, brilliant free-flow football.
Made using TacticalPad
After Reina played it long to Ghoulam, Napoli players moved and switch positions to make space and offer passing lines. Jorginho moved towards the left half-space, Insigne cut inside, Hamsik burst into space vacated by Insigne, and Mertens dropped deep to link up play. What followed next is Sarri’s work of art, results of hard-working team ethic instilled by the astute coach; that’s what Guardiola meant when he said “Napoli are the best team who play in short spaces.” One-touch football is aesthetically pleasing to watch, and the Napoli trio gives us just that.
Knowing that Napoli are at their best when there’s access to the middle, Guardiola aimed to block it completely forcing the Southerners to play towards the flanks.
Gundogan joined Aguero in pressing the center backs, behind them was De Bruyne sticking close to Jorginho, whereas Sane and Sterling were in midfield covering both Hamsik and Allan; angling their body in a way that will allow them to quickly sprint to the wings in case the ball was played there, therefore forming a 2-1-2 hour-glass shape. The yellow rectangles show the space City’s shape allow the full-backs to have. If Sane and Sterling are at their peak awareness, the long passes to the full-backs will be pressure immediately thus closing down two options at once. However, as we’ve seen in the previous animation, Sterling was a bit lethargic in pressing Ghoulam which enabled Napoli to advance with the ball using the wings.
City growing into the game:
A tactical tweak from Guardiola caused a lot of problems for Napoli; instructing Delph and Danilo to play as traditional full-backs instead of inverted ones. This widened Napoli’s defense horizontally thus creating passing lanes towards Sane, Sterling, and Aguero. A brilliant move was carried out when the ball used to reach Delph: he passes to Aguero who’s dropping into midfield to lay it off to Gundogan in optimal position with a perfect field view to progress play into dangerous areas.
Made using TacticalPad
The concept of ensuring players have both adequate field view and open body position when receiving the ball is underrated among coaches nowadays, which separates the good from the best; outstanding attention to detail.
Wingers wide for one-on-one:
After Ghoulam’s injury and City’s confident press-resistant ball circulation, Streling and Sane often found themselves in advantageous 1v1 situations against their opposite full back. When comparing the quality between Maggio and Hysaj with Sterling and Sane, the Citizens’ duo are the ones in favor. Sarri needs to think of a replacement for Ghoulam, just the way he thought of a replacement for the injured Milik. The generation of a free man is a key concept is Juego de Posicion and Guardiola’s side use that a lot in their build-up. With both Sterling and Sane able to have positional and qualitative superiority in the final third when receiving the ball, City were able to make inroads and have better progressions into the Napoli box.
The injury to Ghoulam also significantly reduced Napoli’s attacks down the left as there is a lack of chemistry between the trio when Ghoulam is out injured. The constant outlet on the left is also significantly reduced thus denting Napoli’s major pattern in attacking the final third.
In the end, Guardiola managed once again to prove to the world he’s one of the best coaches in the football world with revolutionary ideas and meticulous preparations. Whenever the opposition’s manager discovers the answer, Pep will be right there to change the question. For Napoli, it felt like a deja-vu with the game scenario playing out as the Madrid’s one last season; being 1-0 up then conceding two goals in succession from set-pieces. Sarri must be applauded for being brave in both of his matches against Guardiola’s side this season in the Champions League as he set his team to press and not defend with 10 men. The beautiful tale of two matches came to an end, yet its events will remain in the minds of Romantic Football’s fans for a long time.