Maurizio Sarri has taken Serie A by the storm. Everyone likes his possession-based, proactive, and attacking style. His football entertains, and more importantly, earns result; Sarri’s Napoli have qualified for the Champions League every season. They have always contended for the league title. This year, they have made another leap and pushed Juventus to the maximum; they are two points behind the league leader. Napoli have averaged 2.52 points per game, ~10% higher than last season. At this rate, they will collect 96 points when the season ends, more than the all but two champions since the league has moved to a three-point system. Sarri has raised the bar of the Serie A.
With revenue of €212 million in 2016/17, ~ €200 million fewer than Juventus, Napoli couldn’t rely on the players’ transfer to strengthen themselves. Internal improvement became the primary option. Their offense has been steady every season under Sarri (between 2.11 and 2.47 goals per game). Their rise in performance this season comes from their defense: they concede only 0.66 goals per game this term, a staggering 35% decrease from last season. Napoli’s defensive improvement fuels their title challenge.
An underload becomes an Overload
Sarri’s Napoli turns their unique advantage in the offense into a defensive dominance. Napoli’s attack focuses on the short pass; they average 565 short passes per normalized possession, 20% higher than the runner-up. They attack fast; as they advance into the opponent’s territory, the number of touches per player decrease, and the speed of the ball’s movement increases. They don’t rely on the dribble, so they can’t stop the ball, and the margin of error shrinks as they enter the final third. Sarri can implement this football style because Napoli live in the half of the pitch. To them, passing is not only a tool to advance the ball but also a device to confuse the defenders. They thrive attacking with the short pass and the tiny space.
Sarri’s method allows Napoli to see space and number unlike others. When your team attacks, you either develop the overload to create a temporal numerical advantage to overwhelm the defenders, or you stretch your opponent to a wide area to create a gap and penetrate. Napoli build on the same concepts, but they radicalize them. Their ball’s movement is so fast and accurate that they don’t need many players or much space to attack. They can overload with fewer attackers, and they can penetrate in a smaller area. Their active pitch size and overloads precondition are smaller than anyone.
Napoli’s unique concept of space and number in the offensive phase creates an unparalleled defensive advantage. You attack with fewer players than the opponent’s defenders, so you are always underloading. Napoli turns that disadvantage into a numerical dominance in the opposite end:
When they attack, they penetrate with three to four players. Their penetration is so dangerous that the opponent needs to deploy eight to nine players to defend behind the ball. This imbalance of number means that when the defending team wins the ball, it has a severe numerical disadvantage up front. Napoli have four to five defending players against one attacker, and they almost always win the possession back as the opponent transitions. Napoli’s players thrive in the small pitch, so they don’t need to switch the ball between the flanks (except Jose Callejon who stays on the ball-far side and waits for the diagonal cross). They jam in a narrow area, so they always stay close to the ball, and can always attack it as soon as it changes hand. Even if the opponent’s striker receives the ball from his teammates, multiple Napoli’s players are already close by and ready to attack him.
Napoli’s extreme offensive underload turns into a mighty defensive overload thanks to their unique advantage of space and number.
Wall after wall and you can’t get out:
Napoli’s defensive pressure multiplies because of the discipline of their players. Their stereotypic players’ positioning in the attack flips into a solid defensive structure when possession changes hands. They prefer attacking the left with Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. The whole team shifts there except for Callejon, and the setup becomes a narrow and asymmetric 3-4-3 close to the ball. When the opponents transition into the offensive phase, they will encounter at least two layers of Napoli’s players. Penetrating it with the pass or dribble is close to impossible.
Napoli can always maintain such a defensive structure because their players have clear defensive duties. Some of them close down the opponent, while the others layer in front of the ball. Even if the pressers have a small chance to tackle and retrieve the ball, they will still chase it to buy time for their teammates to return to the proper positions to form the default defensive structure.
The dogma teaches that the defenders should compress to deny space. Most opponents take this adage to the extreme when they play Napoli. They want to leave no gap at all time, so they cluster around the ball. This extreme positioning creates a problem as the defending team transitions into the offensive phase:
A ball retriever can’t find any viable pass target after he wins the ball. Everyone is close by to cover any gap and defend behind the ball. Passing to them is useless because they also can’t move up the pitch. The ball handler doesn’t want to control the possession for too long because layers of Napoli’s players are ready to close in. Losing the ball in those areas is dangerous; Napoli can immediately initiate the offensive close to the goal.
Napoli’s discipline and their opponent’s fear put an impenetrable wall that the opponent cannot pass through. The only option is to swing it away from the keeper with a long ball.
The Long Ball Is A Gift To Napoli
Napoli want to force the opponent to play the long ball, more specifically, the forced long ball clearance.
They are one of the best equipped to regain the possession from these clearances; Raul Albiol is winning 2.9 headers per game, the 7th best in the league among all qualified center backs. Although Kalidou Koulibaly is only winning 1.7 headers per game (the 64th in the league), he is 6’5 and athletic. He may not win a lot of the headers, but he can intercept or recover a loose ball faster than most center backs. Moreover, Napoli’s overload at the back ensures that few balls can slip through the defenders.
Napoli do everything to pressure the opponent to clear the ball fanatically. The layered structure deters the opponent from dribbling or passing through it. They close down the ball handlers immediately when they are not controlling the ball. They angle their run and cover shadow to force the ball back to the keeper or to the flank:
Goalkeeper rarely dribbles. Losing the ball in the box is suicidal. He usually doesn’t have time to assessing the passing lanes, so he just clears it as far as possible. On the flank, the ball handler has less space and freedom to survey the passing lane.
Napoli have to dictate the opponent’s ball movement because they need it to reach where they have their defensive overload. If they close down every player and cut off all the passing lanes, the ball handlers will hit the ball as soon as they have it, and the ball’s trajectory becomes unpredictable. The ball may arrive in a deserted area. Napoli will still recover it with the numerical advantage, but their players need to rush to the ball. They need to spend extra energy, and they can’t transition it into the offensive phase.
Napoli’s pressers will close down all but one opponent’s player to dictate the opponent’s ball movement. The goalkeeper or the player on the flank always has the freedom to receive the ball:
The pressers move according to the ball. Once the player controls the possession on the flank, Napoli’s players will form a defensive structure around him. They will cut off every immediate passing lane, but they won’t attack him. The ball handler can’t short-pass to his teammates, and he needs to dribble past multiple layers of defense to evade the pressure. Napoli will keep open a passing lane toward where they have defensive overload. That channel is the only route for the ball. This way, Napoli force you to take an option that is only advantageous to them.
By forcing the opponent to flounder a long ball toward their defenders, Napoli can regain the possession and glide back to the offensive phase.
A defense-driven repetitive attack
The principle of Sarri’s method is repetition. They need an effective defense to regain the possession and keep attacking the opponent. The one-touch pass, the small pitch, and the underload/overload are the devices to achieve this goal.
When your strategy hasn’t given you an advantage, you want to change. Change creates variability. You become unpredictable. Your opponent will struggle to cope with you and they will break. Diversity is good, but Sarri doesn’t see it this way.
Napoli always play the same strategy because they have a unique advantage; no one can navigate a small pitch as well as they do. Why would Sarri want to lose that advantage? They also don’t have a lot of room to change; Napoli need the possession and the short passes to impose a small field. And they need the small field for the defense to regain the possession and play the short passes. Everything links to each other to maintain the cycle and keep the pressure. Changing one thing breaks the system. Napoli need the stereotypic and monotonous behaviors to play the repetitive football.
Sarri believes that repetition will drain and crack you; Napoli keep coming at you with their high-intensity offense and defense. You can resist them the first dozen times, but you will exhaust soon. You use up all the mental resource. They cripple your attention and coordination. A mistake can turn a low percentage chance can turn into a golden opportunity. They overload you mentally.
Repetition also compensates for efficiency. Dries Mertens and Insigne are the 3rd best goal scorer and the best assister in the league. But their efficiencies don’t impress: Mertens needs 6.4 shots to score one goal, and Insigne uses nine key passes to create one assist, the 24th and 29th highest among all qualified Serie A’s attackers, respectively. Their efficiencies are not elite, but Napoli make up for them by creating more attempts through repetition: Mertens averages 3.9 shots per game (the 4th highest) and Insigne creates 2.7 key passes per game (the highest). Napoli may not convert many chances, but they create a lot of them. Quantity triumphs quality, although this comes with quality to a certain degree.
Sarri’s method is the repetitive football that requires the efficient defense to sustain it.
(All statistics come from Whoscored.com)