A floodlit Emirates stadium played host to this year’s most exciting Europa League quarter-final tie. Arsenal’s label of favourites going into the game was optimism fuelled by their Jekyll and Hyde performances, where on the road they are disastrous but on home soil, they seem infallible.
In this tactical analysis, we look at how Arsenal triumphed over a lacklustre Napoli side. We use statistics to analyse the key player performances that earned Arsenal an impressive first-leg victory.
The game started furiously, as Arsenal came out of the traps flying. Playing fast football and pressing fervently, Arsenal scored an early goal from Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh midfielder slotted home a fine finish after starting the move from inside his own half. Arsenal continued to dominate the first half and a fortunate deflection saw Torreira’s strike float past the stranded Napoli keeper to make it 2-0 with 25 minutes on the clock.
Napoli sought retribution in the second half, producing a more offensive display. Their efforts to reduce the deficit were in futile, however, as Arsenal produced a mature defensive performance to keep the visitors out. The Gunners adjusted their shape, dropping into a solid 5-4-1 formation. Napoli couldn’t produce enough quality to break Arsenal down and left the capital with everything to do in the second leg.
Unai Emery made several changes from the side that slumped to a defeat against Everton last week. Emery tweaked the Arsenal shape from a 3-4-2-1 to a 3-4-1-2, allowing Lacazette and Aubammeyang to partner up front. In doing so Arsenal increased their xG to 2.76, above their average xG in Europe of 2.01. Čech replaced Leno in goal, and a return for Koscielny condemned Mustafi to the bench. Emery revamped his midfield, replacing youngster Guendouzi and Elneny with Torreira and Ramsey respectively.
Ancelotti lined Napoli up in his preferred flat 4-4-2, a shape Napoli have used in 100% of their European away games this season and they average 57.54% possession when using it. Ancelotti handed the gloves to Meret and kept the same centre back pairing of Koulibaly and Maksimović. Lorenzo Insigne replaced top scorer Milik, partnering Dries Mertens in attack.
Out of possession
Arsenal started the game with intent. In the first 15 minutes, they pushed their full-backs high up the pitch to support the midfield in possession as well as assist in pressing Napoli.
Arsenal’s offensive opening saw them constantly harass the Italian side when in possession, which resulted in continuous recoveries of possession. We can see below how Arsenal’s possession is in direct correlation with the use of their early pressing. Using this tactic they achieved a game-high of 57%.
Arsenal operated an effective man-oriented press, which they implemented high up the pitch in a bid to recover the ball in dangerous areas. As we can see below, Maitland-Niles is pushed forward to support the press installed by the four attacking players. In doing so Arsenal were able to panic their opponent into losing possession.
Solidarity at the back
Once the energetic press yielded success, Arsenal adopted a more structured shape out of possession. From the graph above we can see that this resulted in Arsenal having less of the ball but more defensive stability. In this shape, Arsenal sacrificed possession, in periods they held the ball for as little as 30% of the time.
As we can see above, when not pressing high up the pitch Arsenal retreated into a well-organised defensive unit. The full-backs tucked in to cover any midfield runs into the half-spaces. Their positioning was also useful in blocking the passing lanes into the Napoli forward’s feet. Ramsey and Torreira dropped deeper to prevent large gaps between the defensive lines. This shape prevented Napoli from linking the passes through the midfield and often left Mertens isolated up front. The Belgian striker touched the ball a mere 26 times, less than any other starting player.
Arsenal’s fluidity was too much for Napoli’s rigid 4-4-2 shape. The Gunners were able to play through the midfield lines easily, disrupting the shape of their opponents. Özil and Ramsey, in particular, used their clever movements to pull the Napoli formation apart in the ball rotations.
Arsenal used short passing to play out from the back and build their attacks through all the phases of the pitch. They used their numerical advantage gained from playing an extra centre-back to play through Napoli’s initial press. Once comfortable in possession, Ramsey and Torreira acted as a double pivot in the midfield. Their movement drew the midfield of Napoli forward, which as a result, left large vulnerable spaces in front of their defence. When the Napoli midfield opted to not press Ramsey and Torreira, they allowed Arsenal to play into midfield with plenty of time on the ball.
Once Özil made his move into the space vacated by the Napoli midfielders, the Arsenal centre-back freely played through the Napoli structure. Once played, the Napoli midfielders were the wrong side of the ball and had to make desperate attempts to recover lost ground. Özil used his ability on the half turn to play into the empty space and put Arsenal on the attack.
Napoli’s rigid midfield four were repeatedly pulled apart over the course of the match. Arsenal’s free passing through the lines constructed attacks without committing too many players forward. An additional man in midfield for Ancelotti’s men or a more triggered press using both strikers was needed if they wanted to stop the waves of Arsenal attacks going through them.
Sadly for Arsenal fans, Aaron Ramsey registered another fine performance as his exit from the London club looms. He was instrumental in all aspects of the game which we will analyse below.
On the night Ramsey was at the heart of everything. As we can see from his passing network he was effective in linking the defence with the midfield, and the midfield with the attack. We can see how closely the attacking 4 players positioned themselves, in order to create chances through quick combinations. In particular, his interchanges with Özil in the opposition half tormented the Napoli defence for the entire 90 minutes.
Ramsey also linked well with the Arsenal full-backs, 23 times in total. He was heavily involved in the early stages of possession and built attacks using his intelligent movement and high work rate. He made himself an option at all times, whether it was for his centre-backs, full-backs, or midfield partner, Ramsey was prepared to receive a pass.
Not only was Ramsey exceptional in dictating the tempo and building the Arsenal attacks he was also a constant threat in the final third. In the match, Ramsey achieved a season-high xG of 1.36, blitzing his average xG of 0.26.
With Lacazette and Aubameyang occupying Napoli’s central defenders by looking to get in behind, space opened up in front of the Napoli defence as they were pulled backwards. By dropping deeper Napoli played perfectly into Ramsey’s ability to arrive late in the box. Above we can see the late movement Ramsey makes, giving himself acres of space to get a shot at goal. Throughout the match, Napoli couldn’t track this run and the Welshman had multiple opportunities to add to his tally.
Arsenal will leave the game pleased to have won without conceding an away goal. Their home form is ever impressive but the question still stands as to whether they can produce this type of performance away from the Emirates. What will be of concern to fans and Emery alike is the obvious influence Ramsey has on their performance levels. Inquests will rightfully continue into why the Welsh midfielder has been allowed to leave.
Napoli return to Italy licking their wounds. Their form of late has been uninspiring, resulting in their domestic title challenge dying without a whimper. The Europa League is the Italian side’s only realistic chance of a trophy this season so Ancelotti will almost certainly focus his attention on how his side can overcome the 2 goal deficit. I expect a much better Napoli showing in the second leg and don’t for a second think the tie is over.
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