AS Roma – Napoli: Foolish Handballs Undo Napoli’s Well-Working Game Plan (2-1)
An impressive defensive setup created a solid base for AS Roma to take the game to Napoli and capture the lead. After Kolarov missed a penalty, Mertens helped Napoli improve offensively, but another handball and a second penalty ruined the away side’s chances of a comeback.
Tactical analysis and match report by Om Arvind.
Napoli have had a rough start to the 2019/20 Serie A season. They have periodically failed to win games in which they have been superior, such as their most recent encounter with Atalanta, contributing to two draws in their last two league games and three in their last four. Defense has been a problem – they ranked eighth in expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. conceded coming into their match against Roma, which has hindered what had been the fourth best offense in the league up until that point. Their situation was worsened by the absence of their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who had been suspended in the prior fixture and was, thus, banned from the technical area.
AS Roma have had a similarly shaky start, but look to have righted the ship in the last few games under the wily hand of Paulo Fonseca. As described in their 2-1 win over AC Milan, Roma are starting to understand Fonseca’s tactical principles and are beginning to reap the rewards as a result.
Following his side’s impressive 4-0 victory over Udinese, Fonseca only made one personnel change to his 4-2-3-1 formation, virtue of a Federico Fazio suspension, which brought center-back Mart Cetin into the eleven.
Carlo Ancelotti rotated a lot more, shifting out center-back Nikola Maksimović, left back Sebastiano Luperto, and attacker Hirving Lozano for former Roma man Kostas Manolas, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, and Dries Mertens, respectively. Ancelotti was also forced to leave Allan out of the lineup due to injury, allowing Piotr Zielinski to replace him in the center of the park alongside Fábian Ruiz.
AS Roma’s defensive structure stifles Napoli
The first twenty-five to thirty minutes were defined by Roma’s stifling setup without the ball.
AS Roma’s man-to-man high press.
Whenever Napoli had a goal kick, Roma would press as high as possible in an aggressive man-marking scheme. Insigne and José Callejón would try to drop to bring some relief but they were followed closely by Spinazzola and Kolarov.
If Napoli managed to progress up to the fringes of the middle third, Roma would recede into a medium-high block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. A high block refers to a team that regularly leaves their own half out of possession, to disrupt their opponents far into the attacking half. A medium-high block is well… in between these two variants. where wingers Nicoló Zaniolo and Justin Kluivert would position themselves narrowly in an effort to congest the center. Their positioning was clearly designed to counter Napoli’s preference for progressing through vertical passes into the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. as Zaniolo and Kluivert’s locations off-the-ball restricted the opposition’s passing windows.
AS Roma’s attempt to control the center of the pitch.
Consequently, Napoli’s possession play frequently broke down before they could threaten goal and Roma got to enjoy the majority of possession in the early going.
Napoli tried a similar 4-4-2 man-to-man press of their own, but it was less successful partly thanks to inferior execution and Roma’s own adjustments. As expected, one of Mancini or Jordan Veretout would drop deep to create a back three and overload Mertens and Milik. The other central midfielder would stay on his side of the pitch while Pastore moved into the midfield line to keep structural balance, though the look of the team was frequently asymmetric.
More curiously, Edin Džeko would often swap positions with Kluivert and move out onto the left wing. Much of Roma’s attempts to break Napoli’s lines came from diagonal passes from out wide, and Fonseca seemed to value Džeko’s ability to receive and maneuver the ball in tight spaces and bring others into the game. Indeed, the Bosnian striker did a remarkable job of evading his markers and was the critical tool in moving Roma into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
Džeko received the most progressive passes out of anyone on the team.
Once there, however, Roma generally settled for low percentage long range shots, which Zaniolo made the most of after Roma moved upfield through a rare long ball; the young Italian placed a shot from the edge-of-the-box into the top corner.
Napoli storm back but fail to equalize
Roma had a chance to make it 2-0 after VAR gave them a penalty following a completely unnecessary Callejón handball, but Alex Meret saved Aleksandar Kolarov’s effort. The miss shook Napoli back to a better place and they played the superior football for the rest of the half.
The tactical catalyst for Napoli’s resurgence was their decision to start playing through the wings. With Insigne dropping especially deep to aid Mario Rui, the space in Roma’s right channel was there to be exploited. Napoli finally started to access that area of the pitch with passes down the line to Mertens, who brought the visitors into the final third and allowed them to attack the box.
Note Napoli’s strong passing connections down the left and Merten’s position in the left channel.
Soon after the missed penalty, Napoli won a free kick that saw a Di Lorenzo header cleared off the line by Smalling. A number of shots from just outside the box followed, before Milik planted a brilliant chance onto the bar after Mertens found himself free in the channel, once again.
AS Roma capitalize on another handball
Napoli’s method of ball progression posed a real problem to Fonseca’s system, as it took advantage of the man-marking scheme that was critical to his defensive game plan. In response, the Roma manager asked his men to commit numerous tactical fouls, with five being committed in the first six minutes of the restart and seventeen being committed in the second half compared to the six in the first.
The fouling created a stop-start nature to the game that limited chances for both sides – a fine dynamic for the side in the lead and a frustrating one for the team trailing. It did not help Napoli’s case, either, that Lorenzo Insigne was having one of his poorer games and that Mario Rui, who has played greatly due to repeated injuries to Faouzi Ghoulam, was their starting left back. Additionally, Napoli responded to Roma’s increasingly physical approach with illegal challenges of their own, which mostly broke down their own attacks instead of stopping Roma’s.
In the 55th minute, Mario Rui stretched out his arm and put Roma on the spot for the second time. Veretout took over the duties and made no mistake, though Meret did valiantly to get a hand to a shot that was destined for the top corner.
Around the 67th minute, play was suspended temporarily following what was either discriminatory chants towards Neapolitans or racism directed at Koulibaly, who has suffered from such abuse multiple times before.
After warning on PA, Rocchi temporarily suspends Roma-Napoli. Discriminatory chants against Naples and Neapolitans. Territorial discrimination— James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle) November 2, 2019
Napoli substitutions both aid and hinder their comeback effort
Assistant manager Davide Ancelotti responded to going behind by bringing on Lozano for Callejón and, eventually, Fernando Llorente for Dries Mertens. It probably would have been more beneficial had Lozano come on for the off-form Insigne, but the Mexican still provided a spark down the right wing that would come to benefit Napoli. The more problematic substitution was Llorente, as it removed the man who had been the away side’s most dynamic linkup threat and primary outlet down the left channel.
Llorente was unable to replace any of Mertens’ qualities and was largely uninvolved in the time he spent on the pitch. Nevertheless, Napoli still got a goal back in the 72nd minute, when they won the second ball off of a Pau López goal kick and released Lozano down the right. The substitute’s speed enabled him to get off a free cross, which Cetin missed, allowing Milik to convert from point blank range.
Unfortunately for Napoli, that marked their last best chance of the game, as Roma’s tactical fouling returned in full force – leading to Cetin being sent off at the death – and the absence of Mertens made chance creation difficult.
Napoli will feel unlucky to have lost as they adapted well to Fonseca’s game plan and created two high-quality chances while fashioning a number of decent ones from the edge of the box. But they shot themselves in the foot with unnecessary handballs, which will be punished at almost any level of the game, let alone the Italian top flight.
The roots of Fonseca’s philosophy are growing stronger by the day and his Roma side have managed three league wins in a row for the first time this season. However, he has to be slightly worried by how Napoli outmaneuvered his man-marking scheme, which may be a template that other teams can follow. Tactical fouling may have worked as an appropriate countermeasure on the day, but such methods may be more harshly punished by a different referee.
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