After a very convincing season start for both teams, Napoli and Sassuolo faced each other in a fascinating match between arguably two of the best teams in Italian football.
Due to many important absences, including the striker Francesco Caputo and his captain Domenico Berardi, Sassuolo showed up with a decimated formation. But despite this, thanks to a very clean game tactically speaking, they managed to conquer the San Paolo stadium, incredibly moving to second place in Serie A. Napoli, who were able to score many goals in the first matches of this season, never managed to overtake the Sassuolo goalkeeper, and were defeated 2-0 even though they pretty much dominated in terms of scoring opportunities.
After the turnover made in the UEFA Europa League against Real Sociedad, Gennaro Gattuso returned to his ideal 11: David Ospina in goal, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kostas Manolas, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Elseid Hysaj in the defensive line; Fabián Ruiz and Tiémoué Bakayoko as pivots; and Matteo Politano, Dries Mertens, and Hirving Lozano behind the Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen.
However, for De Zerbi, it was a total revolution compared to his classic 4-2-3-1 formation. Due to many injuries, the Italian coach was forced to switch to a new 3-4-2-1 formation. Andrea Consigli was in goal, Kaan Ayhan, Vlad Chiricheș, and Gian Marco Ferrari as centre-backs; Mert Müldür, Manuel Locatelli, Maxime Lopez, and Rogério in midfield, while Hamed Junior Traoré and Jeremie Boga supporting the young Italian striker Giacomo Raspadori.
Sassuolo’s brand new shape
As previously mentioned, Sassuolo played against Napoli with a completely new tactical set-up than usual.
Playing with a three-man defence, even if they maintained the double pivot in midfield, the build-up phase had totally changed. It always started from the centre-backs, who were tight, while the full-backs dropped to give width to the manoeuvre, as we can see in this image.
This is kind of a revolution in the modern football, speaking of three-man defence formations. We almost always see the full-backs moving forward and the pivots dropping to the defensive line to start the action. However, in this match, the position of the pivots was higher on the pitch, while the offensive depth was given by the two attacking midfielders, who were very fast and able to exploit the vertical passes. It was precisely these vertical passes that were the extra weapon of De Zerbi’s team. Keeping the defensive line and the midfield very compact in non-possession, Sassuolo often made instant long passes as they recovered the ball, as we can see in the following image.
Despite these great tactical changes, in some phases of the match, De Zerbi’s team returned to a structure similar to the usual one. In fact, during the non-possession phase, Sassuolo often settled with a 4-1-4-1, with Rogerio dropping to the defence line and Locatelli working between the midfield and defence lines, as we can see in the image below.
In this way, Sassuolo were able not only to limit Mertens’ impact on the match, but also provided constant double marking on the flanks, where Di Lorenzo’s overlaps on the right could often become a problem.
Napoli’s non-possession aggression
As demonstrated since Gattuso’s arrival last season, his Napoli based their success on intensity, both on possession and non-possession.
Sassuolo, as previously mentioned in this analysis, presented themselves with a completely new set-up, and this, especially in the first minutes, seemed to create troubles to Napoli’s pressing. With the three centre-backs making the first possession, Gattuso’s team tried to close vertical passing lines, forcing Sassuolo to play on the flanks, as we can see in the following image.
However, De Zerbi’s team immediately showed great quality in getting out from this type of situation, managing to take the ball forward with quick plays between full-backs and midfielders. Understanding this, Napoli’s pressure has increased more and more on Sassuolo’s defenders, especially when the goalkeeper was in possession of the ball.
As we can see from the following image, even the midfielders moved forward a lot, forcing Sassuolo to play long passes which Napoli’s defenders would have been favoured to win by their great physicality.
With the team still not able to break the score, and particularly after Sassuolo’s advantage, which was the real turning point of the match, Napoli increased the pressing level more and more. In fact, during the first half, the possession was most of the time by Sassuolo’s side as they were very patient and precise in their plays, even through great pressing.
However, in the second half, Gattuso’s team increased the pressure even more, getting more possession of the ball, and creating many more chances, as we can see in this graph.
The Locatelli-Mertens clash
Two of the reasons why those teams performed incredibly well in the first games of this season are undoubtedly the performances of Manuel Locatelli for Sassuolo and Dries Mertens for Napoli.
Despite being really different players – the Italian midfielder is a real rising star of European football, while the Belgian is crowning his already fantastic career, they have been able to drag their teams along. With Locatelli acting as a defensive playmaker, especially in the non-possession phase, and Mertens as a number 10, the two occupied the same areas of the pitch. And it is precisely in this key clash that Sassuolo probably won the game.
As previously mentioned, Sassuolo focused a lot on the work of the centre-backs in the build-up phase.
However, after the first pressing line, the game flow was always dictated by Locatelli. Not surprisingly, he had 118 touches of the balls throughout the game, with a pass accuracy of 92%. With Mertens man-marking him, the offensive transition would have been much more complex, and Sassuolo would have lost their source of play.
The Belgian instead often worked near Osimhen, giving the Italian midfielder a lot of space, as we can see in the image below.
This also forced his midfield teammates to make a difficult choice: trying to stop him or continuing to mark the players between the lines, Boga and Traoré.
With Napoli in possession, instead, Locatelli’s work was flawless. Although it was not a real man-marking, working behind the midfield in the areas occupied by Mertens he forced the Belgian to always play in wider areas, as we can see in the following image.
Playing in these areas, Mertens was unable to have an impact on the game: only 24 passes made and few real opportunities created, and it is no coincidence that this was the first game in Serie A in which Napoli didn’t score.
Winning his first game of the season against a “big” team, even with an emergency formation, De Zerbi and his Sassuolo confirmed that they are an excellent team. With a difficult and particular season like this, without having European commitments, qualifying for the Europa League is no longer impossible. This new tactic was born out of an emergency situation, but it gave his team a defensive compactness that they didn’t show yet. Maybe this will be a solution also for the future, who knows.
For Napoli, on the other hand, it was a bad stop, but it’s understandable given the sheer number of matches they are playing in these weeks. Gattuso’s team are still one of the best in Serie A, and will fight until the end against teams like Inter and Juventus for the Scudetto.