With only three games left to go and only nine points left to grab, Napoli secured the runners-up spot. Their latest win against Cagliari took their tally up to 73 points – 10 ahead of their closest competitor, Inter Milan.

The Serie A title race has been anything but fun this season, clearly apparent by the 16-point margin currently between Napoli and first place. Ancelotti’s side have been impressive, but quite precarious at times, while their arch-rivals Juventus have performed with pleasing consistency in the league.

Meanwhile, Cagliari are on a decent run but had to stumble across the strong likes of Roma, Napoli, and Lazio nearing the end of the season. Their last match wasn’t really great as I Giallorossi humbled them with the scoreline of 3-0. Unfortunately, they were unable to bring home any point once again, this time against Napoli.

In this tactical analysis, we delve deeper into the duel itself to find out just how I Partenopei managed to edge past I Sardi in this Serie A match.

Lineups

Napoli (4-4-2)

Starting XI: Meret – Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam – Verdi, Allan, Zielinski, Younes – Mertens, Insigne

Bench: Karnezis, Ospina, Luperto, Ounas, Ruiz, Callejon, Rui, Malcuit, Milik

Coach: Carlo Ancelotti

Cagliari (4-3-1-2)

Starting XI: Cragno – Cacciatore, Ceppitelli, Romagna, Lykogiannis – Deiola, Cigarini, Ionita – Barella – Pavoletti, Cerri

Bench: Rafael, Thereau, Pellegrini, Bradaric, Joao Pedro, Birsa, Aresti, Oliva, Pisacane, Padoin, Despodov, Srna

Coach: Rolando Maran

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
The starting lineup for both sides [Credit: Wyscout]

Tactical analysis – Napoli’s setup

Napoli played with their familiar 4-4-2 setup in this game. There were several changes made by Carlo Ancelotti after their previous occasion.

David Ospina, Kevin Malcuit, and Sebastiano Luperto were all out from the Napoli defence. They were replaced by Alex Meret, Elseid Hysaj, and Raul Albiol.

Amin Younes and Piotr Zielinski retained their place in the starting 11, while Simone Verdi and Allan came on to replace Jose Callejon and Fabian Ruiz in the midfield.

There was only a single change up front with captain Lorenzo Insigne replacing Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik.

With Mertens and Insigne up front, Napoli didn’t really have the central attacking target. They seemed to play a much more flexible frontline – with Mertens and Insigne regularly dropping deep and roaming wide. While their wingers seemed to be quite comfortable sitting closer to the centre and driving inside the box.

Napoli played the entire 90 minutes with no alteration in shape.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Napoli’s setup against Cagliari [Credit: Wyscout]

Cagliari’s setup

Cagliari also played with their favourite system of 4-3-1-2. Italian manager Rolando Maran did rotate his squad a bit after their loss in the previous match.

Fabio Pisacane, Luca Pellegrini, Valter Birsa, and Joao Pedro all sat on the bench. While Filippo Romagna, Charalampos Lykogiannis, Alessandro Deiola, and Alberto Cerri saw their names in the starting lineup.

With two pure strikers up front in the form of Pavoletti and Cerri, Cagliari looked to profit mostly from deliveries into the box.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Cagliari’s setup against Napoli [Credit: Wyscout]
Cagliari operated mostly with a 4-3-1-2 system but some changes were seen much later into the game.

As we can see, The Sardinians shifted into a 5-3-2 formation as they looked to park the bus despite only conceding a goal a few minutes earlier. Bringing one point home seemed to be just satisfying enough for Maran and his side.

Napoli completely controlled the game

The home side came into the game with a positive mentality and attacking intent. They looked to dominate the game right since the ball was kicked off. Insigne and co. tried to put the visitors in the most uncomfortable position possible by pressing aggressively. Supported by a high defensive block, Napoli managed to compress the space between the lines and give their opposition a hard time just to hold on to possession.

Napoli, as usual, loved to hold on to the ball with their short-passing, possession-based game. Building up slowly from the back, Napoli were almost always able to get past the first line of pressure from Cagliari.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Napoli playing it out from the back. We could see Insigne and Younes dropping deep while Ghoulam making an offensive run. Napoli preferred to play from the middle early in the game but started playing more out wide as the game wore on.

With Insigne and Mertens frequently dropping deep, Napoli seemed to choose a more difficult route by playing through the middle. A quick interchange of passes was quite common but rarely successful for the Neapolitan. It was often far too crowded for them. The lack of space and passing options, as well as heavy pressure there, easily eliminated potential goalscoring chances.

Napoli had another idea, of course, to exploit spaces left in wider areas. Cagliari’s heavy middle gave them more space to exploit out wide. They duly did by letting the full-backs maraud forward.

Though far more dominant in possession with 67% of the time on the ball, Napoli were rarely successful in breaking through their opponent’s defence. Even when they were able to break past the barriers, they were seldom fruitful.

Difficult to break

Il Partenopei were having difficulties trying to break through Cagliari’s defence. They were happy to patiently work the ball into the box though, exchanging one pass after another. But how would they win if they didn’t score a goal?

We would see quite a different approach in the second half for Napoli. They seemed to try to attract the pressure and attempted to break forward quickly once they’re past the first wave of pressure. Rather than figuring out how to find a gap in the deep defence of Cagliari, Napoli wanted to create the gap itself.

Milik came on in the 64th minute for Younes, giving Napoli the attacking power they very much needed. Insigne was then moved to his favourite position on the left wing. The decision to sub in the Polish man was really game-changing. It was a really smart decision, but not surprising for a seasoned manager like Ancelotti.

Milik stayed forward and central while Mertens was free to roam out wide or drop slightly deeper.

Napoli piled on the pressure and created a massive amount of chances, but however hard they tried, Cragno was always there to save it.

Unable to progress

While the home side were extremely comfortable on the ball, the visiting team were the exact opposite.

Cagliari were also trying to play the ball out from the back, trying to move it forward centrally.

Try as they might though, they were unable to do so.

Cagliari had to see a lot of the ball in their own half. Whether it was Napoli toying around with the ball or they themselves rotating the ball, they failed to get it past the halfway line.

Just like their opposition, Cagliari looked to press with high intensity. They originally weren’t supposed to sit very deep in their own half. But as Napoli had complete control of the game, they just had to withdraw and be extra careful in defence.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Cagliari’s Artur Ionita closing down Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj. Both teams pressed each other aggressively.

Speaking of being extra careful, that was not always the case for Cagliari as they actually managed to lose the ball far too many times due to the rashness of their passing.

They were visibly trying to play it around while going forward, but their one-two touch passes really should have been better. Great idea, lack of execution.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Cagliari’s losses (left) and Napoli’s recoveries (right) throughout the game [Credit: Wyscout]
Cagliari were also too slow when transitioning from defence to attack. Many were still jogging from the back when the ball’s already up front. This would often leave the attackers with virtually no passing option which was why they lost quite a lot of possession up front.

Cagliari improved significantly, but not quite enough

Gaffers from both sides definitely demanded to see improvements after the halftime break. For Napoli, scoring a goal would be considered an improvement. Whereas for Cagliari, perhaps being able to pass accurately, hold on to the possession, and get into the opposition area more often would really please the manager.

The Sardinians have certainly upped their game quite drastically in the second half. They executed their one-two touch passing game exquisitely and were able to attack their opposition regularly.

Their solidity at the back and tireless pressing up front finally paid off as they opened the scoring in the 63rd minute. Zielinski tried to pass the ball through to Ghoulam but showed too much and was intercepted by Deiola. The Cagliari midfielder then delivered a splendid through ball onto the run of Barella, who in turn backheeled the ball towards an unmarked Pavoletti.

It was a brilliant play by Cagliari: a swift counter-attack ending with a sweet finish, just what they needed in the second half.

Napoli Cagliari Serie A Tactical Analysis Analysis
Koulibaly bringing the ball forward and supporting the attack, making it 9 men for Napoli in their opposition’s half. Meanwhile, Cagliari tried to protect their lead by defending deep with 10 men inside their own half.

As the end of the game draw closer, Cagliari tucked themselves in with 10 men in their own half. Meanwhile, Napoli would often have nine men above the halfway line with Koulibaly frequently dribbling up and staying high as the extra frontman.

Napoli finally had a breakthrough

Napoli finally scored a leveller very late in the game. Mertens crossed the ball but it was too strong and found Insigne on the other flank instead. The latter passed the ball to the feet of Ghoulam who crossed the ball into the box. Milik tried to reach the ball, but it was Mertens who connected with his head. The Belgium international snuck past the defenders and rose highest to put the ball past Cragno. 1-1 was the scoreline in the 85th minute of the game.

The goal was just as vital for Napoli as for Mertens. That one put his tally ahead of the legendary Diego Maradona with 82 Serie A goals for I Partenopei.

After the goal, Maran decided to switch to an ultra-defensive 5-3-2 formation. The Italian manager brought on centre-back Pisacane for Pavoletti as his final substitution.

Cagliari parked the bus, but Napoli were relentless. They kept on going right until the end.

The latter were awarded a penalty in the 94th minute. Just over a minute earlier, Ghoulam’s cross struck the arm of Cacciatore. Referee Daniele Chiffi was hesitant at first but made the difficult decision in favour of the home side. Insigne took the penalty and scored, much to the disappointment of the opposing side who had thought they’d come home with at least a point in hand.

Cagliari kicked the ball off for the last time of the game, reluctantly. It seemed as if all their energy has just been sucked out of their already tired bodies. They just wanted to go into the dressing room already. The referee let them play for several more minutes before blowing the final whistle.

Effectiveness in front of goal

Though Napoli had more possession, more shots, and of course, more goals – they seemed to be less effective than their counterpart.

Napoli had a grand total of 23 shots goalwards, but only seven (30.43%) of them were on target. Cagliari, on the other hand, had only six attempts on goal with two (33.33%) of them being accurate.

Napoli’s 2.65 xG says a lot about their lack of effectiveness in front of goal. Vastly different than their opposition’s 0.71 xG value.

Conclusion

Napoli surely could have won by a bigger margin. They were persistent in attack but sadly lacked effectiveness. The brilliance and influence of both Cragno and Barella were not helping the home side either. One was really solid in protecting the goal, while the other was anywhere on the pitch, tirelessly running, pressing, and creating for his team.

Cagliari could have run away with a win if only they could hold on to their slender lead after a significantly improved second half. But Napoli managed to scrap a precious three points late in the game.

There were, of course, some events that were quite controversial such as the penalty decision for Napoli, but when the referee made the decision, everyone just had to agree.


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Rofiq Naufal

Self-proclaimed football scout and analyst. Please pardon the quality of my writings for I am as prone to mistakes as Shkodran Mustafi.
Rofiq Naufal