Fiorentina – Napoli: Napoli Edge Past Fiorentina In Back And Forth Thriller (3-4)

The opening day of the Serie A season was highlighted by this blockbuster tie between Fiorentina and Napoli. This would be a tough fixture for both sides who had differing ambitions heading into the new season. What was produced was a seven-goal opening day classic which great attacking football, fine finishes and a sprinkle of refereeing controversies.

Tactical analysis and match report by Julian Chingoma.

This was the start of a new era for Fiorentina, after their disastrous 2018/19 campaign, which saw them sitting just above the relegation zone at the end of season. And for the new ownership at the helm, despite notable additions to the playing squad, this would have been an unwelcome first opponent to start their journey.

This game marked the first day of Napoli’s quest to dethrone Juventus, the champions of the last eight Serie A titles and winners of their opening fixture earlier in the day. Victory on the road at the Stadio Artemio Franchi would go a long way to them achieving this lofty goal.

Vincenzo Montella lined up Fiorentina in a 4-3-3 formation. Goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski was protected by a backline made of fullbacks Pol Lirola and Lorenzo Venuti, with German Pezzella and Nikola Milenkovic as center-backs. The midfield three was the returning Milan Badelj in a holding role, and Gaetano Castrovilli along with exciting new signing Erick Pulgar slightly higher up the pitch. The front three was made up of star man Federico Chiesa as well as Riccardo Sottil on the flanks with Dušan Vlahović as the striker.

Carlo Ancelotti brought out the expected 4-4-1-1 shape for the visitors. They had a backline led by star player Kalidou Koulibaly, alongside new man Kostas Manolas. Mario Rui and Giovanni Di Lorenzo were the fullbacks and in goal was Alex Meret. Piotr Zieliński and Allan formed the double pivot in midfield, with José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne out wide. In attack, Fabián Ruiz would be in support of Dries Mertens. 

Fast Fiorentina start 

When building the play, Fiorentina would have at least one fullback push forward with Badelj assisting the remaining defenders to bring the ball out. He would stay centrally most often, but could enter the space vacated by an advancing fullback, essentially reconstructing the back four. Pulgar and Castrovilli would drop deeper in this instance to provide central options.

The decision to not send both fullbacks forward too often may have been to mitigate the risk involved if Napoli were to win the ball with their press and counter quickly. Napoli would sit in a 4-4-2 shape when defending and would often press aggressively in a man-orientated fashion. This would cut out passing options and forcing long balls which their formidable central defenders should deal with. Fiorentina did not seem to mind sending long balls forward, as they created some threatening situations that way.. They either sent the balls in behind for Chiesa and Sottil to run onto or send it to Vlahović to hold it up and find teammates in support.

Frequent setup of the teams when Fiorentina had the ball.

And when they did manage to beat the press, the home side circulated the ball well and did threaten  in the first few minutes of the game. Chiesa and Sottil would not only sit out wide, their positioning more centrally caused Napoli problems as Fiorentina found them in these areas often where they did well to retain possession.

And they would truly enjoy a dream start to their campaign, when they found themselves a goal up less than ten minutes on the clock. As the ball bounced awkwardly in the Napoli box, the ball inadvertently struck Zielinski’s arm. The referee with the aid of VAR then awarded a penalty to the hosts. Pulgar took responsibility and put away the penalty to kickstart his career in Florence with a goal on debut. That’s not the last you’ll hear from VAR in this article, mind you.

Napoli response

Fiorentina also used an aggressive press which Napoli struggled to deal with initially but after conceding, Napoli began to retain possession and establish their game. When not pressing, Fiorentina would drop back in their 4-3-3 shape and would usually start pressing once the ball went to a Napoli fullback. This time, when they dropped back, they allowed Napoli to put pressure on them.

During their buildup, Napoli would have their fullbacks push up high, this would either draw the attention of Pulgar and Castrovilli or pin the Fiorentina wingers back. Insigne and Callejón could then tuck in and find space more centrally whenever the passing lanes opened. Allan and Zielinski would help the center-backs to build up the play. Fabián Ruiz would also drop to form a midfield three to truly outnumber the Fiorentina efforts.

The usual positioning with Napoli in possession and the Fiorentina midfielders track the fullbacks and not the wingers.

Eventually, the building pressure brought the equalizer through a spectacular goal in the 39th minute. Insigne collected a poor clearance and fed to a tightly marked Mertens. The small forward then showed good strength to not only hold off Badelj but to free himself of his marker completely while he turned to strike towards goal. Dragowski could only get fingertips to his finish into the top corner from well outside the box.

Minutes later, Napoli had the lead. Great play out wide saw Callejon running into space and he then swung in a cross. Castrovilli dived to head it away but missed it, luckily it missed Mertens as well. His midfield partner, Pulgar was the one to get in the way of the cross but his block caused the ball to float kindly towards Mertens. He then tripped over the foot of Castrovilli who was still returning to his feet. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Insigne tucked it away. This was a disappointing end to the half for the home side who suddenly found themselves behind.

An eventful restart

Immediately after the restart, the game turned into an end-to-end contest, as the teams were still trying to get organized and Fiorentina reaped the rewards. A Napoli attack broke down with five of their players in the Fiorentina box and the counter was on. The ball was quickly given to Chiesa who ghosted past Allan in midfield and began to charge at the Napoli backline. He then skipped past Koulibaly who came out to challenge him and fed Sottil to his right. The winger then struck against a defender, earning the corner they equalized from. The in-swinging corner by Pulgar was met by the head of Milenkovic and it found its way past Meret’s best efforts in goal. The hosts’ joy did not last long though, as Napoli answered back just four minutes later.

Napoli retook the lead via another brilliant finish. With several Napoli players drifting to the left of the field and drawing the attention of the Fiorentina players, Insigne could quickly switch the point of attack to the right towards Callejon. A quick, curving pass by Insigne led his teammate right near the edge of the box and the Spaniard executed a tough first-time strike into the bottom corner leaving Dragowski little chance.

Fiorentina comeback stifled again 

In the 61st minute, Montella made a key change that brought an instant impact. Kevin-Prince Boateng was introduced into the forward role with the mostly anonymous Vlahović making way. Seconds after coming on he produced a great volleyed attempt at goal which drew a good save out of Meret and signalled his intent. It only took him another three minutes to get onto the scoresheet. Pulgar expertly found Castrovilli behind the Napoli midfield line. Boateng peeled off of Koulibaly to find a small pocket of space at the edge of the Napoli box. Castrovilli played it to the Ghanaian, and he let the ball run across his body and his sublime first-time shot went in off the post.

Poor marking and a familiar pattern of play gave the winning goal to Napoli. The ball from the left hand side of the final third to the back post to Callejón sneaking in behind has been one of the more recognisable tactical tools used by Napoli over the years and it reared its head once again. Mertens found himself on the left with the ball in a three-vs-six situation in Fiorentina’s favour. Yet Callejón was still able to find plenty of room making a blindside run behind the Fiorentina defense. Mertens managed to find him with a cross and he cut it back for an unmarked Insigne to prod home with his head.

As the clock winded down, Montella made some changes to freshen up his side in the attacking phase. This saw the highly anticipated introduction of Bayern Munich legend Franck Ribéry. He came on for Sottil and Chiesa moved to the right of attack to accommodate Ribéry in his favored role on the left. The response by Ancelotti was to bring in defender Elseid Hysaj for Mertens. Callejón then moved up front and the substitute played on the right where we could drop back and assist Di Lorenzo defensively. And it was these two substitutes involved in the final key moment of the game in stoppage time.

After a cross from the right was cleared by Koulibaly, Pulgar quickly headed it out to Ribéry. With Hysaj on his back and Fabián Ruiz closing in, the Frenchman brilliantly turned between them with the ball and was seemingly dragged down by Hysaj as he entered the box. The referee waved away the protests and VAR, for once, did not intervene. Napoli were then able to hold onto their lead as the minutes ticked down.


This was a dramatic game that served as a reminder of the entertainment value that Serie A has to offer. Both sides had attacking intent and still hassled each other while off the ball. This game was highlighted by controversial refereeing decisions and impressive finishing from both teams. Napoli would be disappointed to concede three but in the end, they claimed a vital win as they move on to face Juventus next week. Fiorentina, on the other hand, will take plenty of positives from this game and will make the trip to face Genoa in their next fixture.

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