The round-of-16 of the UEFA Europa League brought us some huge clashes and pitted Napoli and Red Bull Salzburg against each other to form one of the most exciting duels in the competition. After they advanced past Zurich in the knockout phase which preceded this one, Carlo Ancelotti’s squad had a tougher rival on the opposing end. Marco Rose’s team came into this match as underdogs, but with the hope that they could mess up Neapolitan’s plans.
This tactical analysis will show how Napoli brilliantly cut all of their opponent’s ideas and how they basically paved their way to the next round of the Europa League.
Napoli started in the 4-4-2 formation without their star player Lorenzo Insigne because he wasn’t fully fit for the match. Piotr Zielinski took his place on the left-hand sideline, but throughout the game, he mainly positioned himself in the inner corridors, leaving the space on the flank for Mario Rui to overlap. The crucial attacking force were their two strikers – Mertens and Milik, who constantly rotated and drove Red Bull’s defenders crazy.
Salzburg went into the game with their best squad using the 4-1-2-1-2 formation with Dabbur and Daka on top of it. The creative part of the team was made up of Schlager, Wolf and Junuzović who struggled to organise play the way Rose wanted.
Napoli’s cool-headed possession
Both Napoli and Red Bull focused on intense pressing as their main weapon for the game. Since both teams tried to high press their opponent at the start of the match, it was clear that the winner will be the one that manages to cope with their opponents’ pressing the better. In the first ten minutes, Salzburg did well to manage the compactness of their pressing, so that brought them into good positions in the final third.
Ancelotti’s boys responded in the same manner, positioning their defensive line high up the pitch and using passes between the opposition’s central defenders as a pressing trigger. That caused a lot of mistakes from Onguene and Ramalho from which the attacking part of Napoli’s team had plenty of benefits.
Salzburg went into the pitch with very high positioning but with a lack of aggression in the deciding moments of the pressing. Uneven pressing from the Austrians resulted in the first goal for the home team. Napoli’s midfielders used the small gaps in Salzburg’s centre of the pitch and exploited it to score.
Mertens and Zielinski both positioned themselves in the half-spaces but in different phases of play. Their movement brought Gli Azzurri in a situation in which they had numerical superiority and better-positioned players than the defenders, so finishing the action was an easy task for Milik.
From that moment, the organisation of the away team became worse. They continued trying to press all over the field but Allan and Fabian Ruiz dealt with it easily. Their cold-blooded decisions and good ball protecting skills were the keys to attacking progress for Napoli and doubling the lead.
The home midfield trio took advantage of the free space that was left between Red Bull’s midfielders and used it to break the pressing. Allan’s run-ins in those empty spaces where of great importance for Ancelotti’s team to get to the opponents’ half of the pitch.
Napoli managed to progress through Salzburg’s lines without much trouble, and that broke the organisation of Rose’s team in pieces.
An early lead for the Blues was a trigger for the away team to start to play with more risk. They tried to play out of the back, but the pressing they needed to fight against was good enough to make them fail. Red Bull’s defenders and midfielders weren’t that sure with the ball in their feet and that led to a lot of mistakes in dangerous areas of the pitch.
Napoli’s press was central-oriented. They set their pressing traps for the centre-back pair in order to make them make a mistake and provide them with a goal-scoring opportunity.
Their job was made easier due to a lot of unforced errors from the visiting team’s midfielders. If the initial pressing on the defenders didn’t work, Allan, Ruiz and Zielinski managed to take the ball away from the insecure midfielders.
These situations tended to repeat during both halves and usually resulted in opportunities for the Italians. The pressure of the big match made Rose’s team look unrecognisable so his plan fell apart and their mistakes brought them two goals down. Salzburg’s midfielders played poorly throughout the game and that benefited Mertens and company a lot.
Napoli exploited Salzburg’s bad positioning
One of the biggest issues in Red Bull Salzburg’s game was bad positioning of the defensive line and its incompatibility with the midfield line of the team. Napoli’s attackers spotted that defenders weren’t well-coordinated and that they often lose track of their positions so they decided to start rotating to confuse them even more.
The main positional changes in the home team were the ones between the strikers and Callejon and Zielinski. The constant motion of the attacking part of Ancelotti’s team drove defenders out of their positions and created a lot of free space behind their back. That was noticeable especially when Milik dropped lower and brought one of the centre-backs with him which allowed Mertens room to exploit.
Ramalho and Onguene had a lot of problems with Napoli’s strikers due to misunderstandings and bad communication. There were a few situations where they both were in the same position with free space behind them which was unprotected.
Most of the Neapolitan’s chances came out of exploiting their opponents’ mistakes, either in passing or positioning. Mertens used the pockets between the defenders and the midfielders to bring his team into good positions to threaten Walke’s goal.
The player with the most influence on the game was Allan. He dictated the play and made it possible for his team to play the way they did. He was great in ball-carrying and retaining the ball and also in initiating the press and restoring possession.
After the third goal which secured the win for the home team, Napoli loosened things a little and let their opponents have the ball. Rose made some substitutions bringing Guldbrandsen, Mwepu and Minamino in for Daka, Junuzović and Dabbur. That resulted in a few great chances for Salzburg but Merret did a great job of saving his goal.
Napoli made it clear they are one of the favourites to win this year’s Europa League. First, they need to secure their place in the next round, but if they continue playing as they played in this game they have reasons to shoot for the stars. Even though they got us used to their interesting attacking patterns, Salzburg didn’t manage to pull them off against a well-organised opponent. Rose’s team seemed like they need to prepare better for the second leg and try to come up with a different game plan if they want to proceed to the next round.
Napoli’s set-up against Salzburg and ease with which they played indicates that they are in the right state of mind and that they could be the ones to watch in the coming rounds of the competition.
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