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Milan (4-3-3) | Manager: Gennaro Gattuso
99. Donnarumma / 2. Calabria, 22. Musacchio, 17. Zapata, 68. Rodriguez / 5. Bonaventura, 21. Biglia, 79. Kessie / 10. Calhanoglu, 7. Andre Silva, 8. Suso
Napoli (4-3-3) | Manager: Maurizio Sarri
25. Reina / 11. Maggio, 33. Albiol, 26. Koulibaly, 23. Hysaj / 5. Allan, 8. Jorginho, 17. Hamsik / 7. Callejon, 14. Mertens, 24. Insigne
Milan and Napoli played a balanced game, but the result put their respective domestic goals in peril.
Milan control the space between the lines
Napoli’s quick passing game aims to attack the space between the lines. Kalidou Koulibaly and Jorginho focus on finding Marek Hamsik or Lorenzo Insigne there to initiate the penetration. In the first half, Milan’s midfield nullified Napoli’s vertical passes:
Milan defended in a 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1. Franck Kessie played on the same side as Hamsik. The Ivorian and Lucas Biglia prevented Napoli from finding Hamsik in the space between the lines. Koulibaly controlled the ball when Napoli advanced on the left. Kessie would move to confront the Senegalese. He aimed to close down Koulibaly’s vertical passing lane toward Hamsik. As Kessie came out of the midfield, Biglia would move up to take over the Ivorian’s defensive position, usually in front of Hamsik. Koulibaly didn’t have enough time to gauge the passing lane, and even if he did, he had to pass through Kessie and Biglia on two different lines. Koulibaly had to attempt an overhead pass over Milan’s midfield in order to overcome this pressing. Milan’s lines of defense maintained a close distance between each other. Finding Hamsik there was difficult, and Koulibaly had to pass to Elseid Hysaj (who played as the left back in this match) or Insigne on the flank.
Napoli’s offense couldn’t function on the right side; Hysaj is Napoli’s most skillful player there, but he had to replace Mario Rui as the left fullback. Christian Maggio brought great work ethic but not the same skill as the Albanian. The visitor had no choice but to focus attacking the left flank.
Hamsik couldn’t find the ball behind Milan’s midfield, so he retreated to receive the ball. Napoli now had too many players around the half-line; the three midfielders stayed too close to each other in front of Milan’s second line of the defense. They didn’t have a passing target behind it. When they controlled the possession in the midfield, Napoli’s midfield distorted from their optimal structure:
Hamsik stayed too close to Jorginho, and the Brazilian sometimes moved out of his position to allow for better passing lane between them. He couldn’t dictate the play and became a runner. Allan took some of the play-making tasks. All of them were doing things they are not good, rather not the best at, and consequently, Napoli’s offense struggled.
Napoli were tired
Napoli couldn’t gain the control of the game because of the fatigue that has crept into the squad due to Sarri not rotating his squad enough.
Napoli need an aggressive, high-pressure pressing defense to dominate the possession and keep attacking. But they couldn’t do that in this game. Their pressing was ineffective:
When they pressed Milan, they didn’t close down the passing lanes; Napoli often had only one initial presser, usually Dries Mertens, to pressure the ball handler. He didn’t run fast enough to exert enough pressure and the Milan player could survey the possible passing lanes. Even if the initial presser closed down the ball handler quickly enough to force the ball to the flank, his teammates were often not ready to close down the ball receiver. Lousy pressing is worse than not pressing.
Napoli also had a problem in their counter-pressing. Usually, they attack the loose ball immediately after they lose it. In this game, their reaction to the loose ball changed. They often stood after they lost the possession. Just like their problematic pressing, even if one player attacked the ball, his teammates didn’t follow, and they applied minimal pressure to Milan’s players when the host controlled the possession.
Napoli use a zonal press to pressure the opponent. This tactic requires a high level of organization, stamina, and concentration. Their poor performance in playing their signature weapon is the most obvious evidence that they are suffering from the fatigue. With an underwhelming performance in the offense and the defense, Napoli lost the control of the game.
Milan offensive strategy
With inconsistent Napoli’s pressure, Milan could often transition into the attacking phase. Their primary outlets were Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso on both flanks. They could protect the ball and dribble past the defenders. They also switched the ball between the sides frequently, keeping Napoli’s defenders from crowding them. Although they were Milan’s primary creators, Kessie powered the host’s offense throughout this game:
Gennaro Gattuso has always positioned Giacomo Bonaventura and Kessie in the half-space between the lines when they attack. The two central midfielders, not Calhanoglu or Suso, are the most crucial component of Gattuso’s offensive system; without them, Milan can’t create space for the inverted wingers to attack. Milan have similar types of strikers. They thrive in the box but can’t do much away from it. Because they always operate inside the box, the defenders don’t need to move out of the positions to engage them. Even if they do, they present no threat. The defenders can always station around the box area, so Suso and Calhanoglu often need to deal with a wall of defenders when they turn inside.
Kessie powered the host’s offense in this game. Milan relied on him to displace Napoli’s defender. The defensive load exhausted Bonaventura and Milan struggled to create a lot of chances on the left. Kessie was strong and could box-to-box the whole game. When Milan attacked the right flank, Davide Calabria would support Suso. Kessie would move into the half-space between the lines. Because Calabria and Suso occupied Hysaj and Allan, either Jorginho or Koulibaly needed to move out of their defensive lines to confront Kessie. On several occasions when Kessie moved out of his position, he lured Jorginho toward him. This way, Milan created an open area outside of the box for Suso to attack. The Spaniard created several chances from there.
Kessie is so strong that many opponents need to design a unique strategy to confront him; Roma had pushed Federico Fazio out of the defense early to engage Kessie, while Juventus switched to a 3-5-2 and had Giorgio Chiellini permanently guarding the half-space between the lines. Napoli didn’t worry about Kessie when he moved toward the byline. Koulibaly is so athletic and strong. He had the upper hand in a 50-50 duel against Kessie.
Milan could attack the visitor, but they created only a few half-chances and couldn’t score.
Maurizio Sarri adjusted in the second half. To create space for Hamsik to operate between the lines, Napoli removed other midfielders from working in the left half-space. Hysaj or Insigne would hog the sideline. Napoli’s forwards now occupied Milan’s defenders. They would initiate the attack on the right side with Raul Albiol, Jorginho, and Allan. The visitor then switched the ball back to the left.
Napoli now created a large area between the lines. Mertens and Jose Callejon pinned Milan’s defenders away from the midfield. Insigne and Hysaj stretched the host on the left. Their asymmetric build-up pulled Milan’s midfielders away from the left half-space. Hamsik now found a lot of space to roam. Kessie’s teammates couldn’t provide him with enough cover when he confronted Koulibaly or Jorginho. Napoli could generate better vertical passing range toward Hamsik in the area between the lines. Their attack became more efficient compared to that of the first half.
Napoli took control as the game went on. Although their attack had been inefficient in the first half, all those quick passes kept Milan’s players moving and scrambling. Milan became exhausted from all those defensive runs. Gattuso had no choice but kept his starters as long as he could; Bonaventura was visibly exhausted after 60 minutes, but Milan did not have a backup midfielder with a similar characteristic.
Milan sat deep in the later period of the game. Sarri threw in Arkadiusz Milik to change the way Napoli attacked. They created one big chance but Gianluigi Donnarumma’s miraculous save denied them three points and possibly the Scudetto.
Both teams deserve the draw, but the result possibly prevents them from reaching their domestic goals.
Milan are nine points away from the fourth place. They started too late. Milan probably wouldn’t qualify for the Champions League next season. But they have a great foundation; Donnarumma is only 19. Alessio Romagnoli and Kessie can be the best players at their positions for years to come. If they can keep these players (a BIG IF for Donnarumma) and add new reinforcements, they will be contending for the title in the coming seasons.
Napoli’s recent dips of the form will probably end their Scudetto hope. The fatigue caused by a lack of rotation plays a significant role. But calling their season a bust, apart from their suicide in the Europa League, is unfair; they are 17 points ahead of the third place. You put Callejon or Albiol in Inter/Milan/Roma they wouldn’t enter the starting lineup. Reina will not take away Wojciech Szczesny’s minutes if he plays for Juventus. The fact that we are even discussing whether their lack of rotation prevents them from winning the title demonstrates what a great season Napoli are having.