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Napoli 2-1 AC Milan | Milan fall in the half space trap

Big changes are coming in the Italian Football, after failing to qualify to the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Yet one factor remains constant and that is a Serie A weekend would inject the Italians a temporary anesthesia away from the disgust feeling that arises each time memories of Ventura pops up. Ironically, Neapolitans will remember their national team’s mess each time their hometown club plays, with their thoughts being if only had Insigne played during the qualification playoff match against Sweden.

Napoli hosted AC Milan in what was considered a far-fetched revival chance for the Rossoneri against the top-attacking team in Italy right now. Both teams’ managers had a duty to make up for their respective fans in the form of winning this much-anticipated match. Such duty arises due to the football culture that Italy breathes – an expression I’m fully convinced by it – day in day out.

Line-ups:

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Napoli (4-3-3) | Manager: Maurizio Sarri

  1. Reina – 23. Hysaj, 33. Albiol, 26. Koulibaly, 6. Mario Rui – 17. Hamsik, 8. Jorginho, 5. Allan – 24. Insigne, 14. Mertens, 7. Callejon.

AC Milan (3-5-2) | Manager: Vincenzo Montella

  1. Donnarumma – 22. Musacchio, 19. Bonucci, 13. Romagnoli – 11. Borini, 79. Kessie, 73. Locatelli, 18. Montolivo, 5. Bonaventura – 8. Suso, 7. Kalinic.

 

Maurizio Sarri has his team playing some top notch football this season and they do not seem to be fazed by the injury to key man ,Ghoulam. Napoli’s only change was Mario Rui, who gave in a good performance, instead of the injured Ghoulam. One would expect that after the international break Sarri would rest some of his key players; but his squad choices really cast light on the importance of finishing the first half of the season as winter champions. Meanwhile, Montella opted for the 3-5-2 formation in the aim of providing a strong defensive performance by matching Napoli’s formation; 3 at the back to cover Napoli’s attacking trio, 3 at the center to cover Napoli midfield, 2 wingbacks to cover Napoli’s fullbacks, and 2 strikers to keep Napoli’s central defenders busy. However, Napoli had several tricks up their sleeve to counteract Milan’s defence.

Napoli’s High Pressure & Milan’s Medium Block

In the game’s opening minutes, Napoli pushed forward when defending to quickly take the ball back from the technically-weak Milan players. Pressing was also applied on Donnarumma whenever the ball got back to him, forcing him into a long ball towards the full backs or towards Napoli’s defense.

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Whereas Milan tried pressuring high in the first few minutes but realized that it’s near impossible to intercept the ball from Napoli’s players. This made Milan retreat into a medium block and set up the interception zone from the middle third of the field and backward.

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However, Rossoneri’s midfield block wasn’t vertically compact with its defensive line; such a mistake is extremely costly when playing against an attacking opponent of Napoli’s caliber.  This gap played into Hamsik’s abilities of receiving and attacking the penalty box. If a direct pass to him wasn’t possible, Koulibaly would play a side pass to Jorginho who is in a better angle to find Hamsik; therefore delivering the ball to Hamsik in a dangerous position.

Insigne’s Fluidity

If Milan’s 3-man defence line pushed up, Insigne would stay wide waiting for the lob passes from his teammates, using his pace and skill to trouble Musacchio & Borini.

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If Milan’s 3-man defence line remained deep, Insigne would cut inside and position himself between Musacchio and Bonucci, allowing space for Mario Rui to venture forward and either force Borini to track back, or gain a 2 vs 1 advantage over Musacchio.

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If Milan switched to a back 4, Insigne and Callejon would stay as wide as possible to stretch them horizontally and allow for Hamsik to run into the channels now exposed.

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Mertens dropping deep

At times we saw Mertens dropping all the way to the center circle to receive the line-breaking passes from Koulibaly. This movement had to happen as to not fall in the trap of negative possession – passing in a U-shape without actually threatening the opposition’s organization – and increase Milan’s self-confidence as the match wears through. The Belgian’s movement was followed by the wingers’ curved runs on the inside of Rossoneri’s central defenders, a play that proved to be the catalyst for Napoli’s first goal scored by none other than Insigne.

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A goal that brilliantly shows Napoli’s style of play: Quick passes between Albiol-Mertens-Jorginho to provide good field vision for the player who will be giving the final pass, this move ended in a lob pass from Jorginho to Insigne who breaks away from Milan’s defenders. When Mertens dropped into midfield, Milan’s defence line pushed up in an attempt to pressure him but they didn’t follow him all the way, this confusion provided a golden chance for the Italian attacker to breakthrough. At first sight, the assistant referee flagged the goal as offside, however, the match official decided against it basing his decision on VAR.

Milan Attack

In counter-attacks, Suso would be the focal point as 5 players would push forward up-field with the other 5 staying back to cover any threat from the Neapolitans.

In constructed attacks, Suso and Kalinic would occupy Napoli’s two central defenders as the wingbacks would push forward behind the opposition’s fullbacks. Bonaventura managed to find free space on the wings but his teammates couldn’t connect with him.

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Half-Space orientation

In the second half, Milan lost their focus and started committing men forward, this lead to the dangerous exposure of the half-space channel, which Hamsik kept on targeting. Consequently, the second goal was scored after a chip from Mertens into the half-space met Zielenski who was running behind the Belgian player to find himself one-on-one against the young Gigi.

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One would ask why such gaps appear later in the game? It all relates to the mental strength of players, especially Milan’s. To be able to handle Napoli’s attacking waves and still hold your defensive organization needs extreme preparation and previous victories that aid in boosting the team’s morale. Unfortunately for Milan, this fixture came at the worst time possible: low morale, series of bad results, inexperienced squad, tension among and around the club, and problems with Bonucci.

Conclusion

Napoli’s supporters could not have dreamt of a better weekend, winning against AC Milan and Juventus losing against Sampdoria to go 4 points clear of their archrivals from Turin. Inter Milan kept on their winning ways thereby holding the knife close to the Partenopei with a two point gap only. A point worth mentioning is the players’ stamina levels cometh the months of February and March, the two most important months in any team’s season. Upon looking at the social media feed and media speculations, we can feel the sense of worry among the Naples’ loyals; will the players be able to keep the same momentum throughout the season? The possibility of a burnout, both mentally and physically, looms for Napoli as there is little rotation from Sarri.

All the above are considered worries that must be voiced. In the end, those football-crazy fans are waiting upon a dream long lost, the dream of not only lifting the Serie A Title; it’s the dream conceived on the minds of each Napoli fan and every other neutral that  beautiful football can win you the Italian League. Maurizio Sarri, what do you have in mind that you aren’t telling us?

Khaled Bou Mehdi

Khaled Bou Mehdi

Passionate fan of the beautiful game. Avid reader of football articles with a special focus on possession-based teams. Loves Pep Guardiola.
Khaled Bou Mehdi
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