Liverpool – SSC Napoli: Aggressive performance sees last year’s finalists into the Champions League knockout stages (1-0)
Mohamed Salah scored the deciding goal as Liverpool edged past Napoli at Anfield to progress into the Champions League Round of Sixteen. Liverpool’s intensity disturbed Napoli’s play, and the visitors struggled to gain rhythm which allowed the home side to dominate the match for large periods.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Williams.
Group C was arguably the tightest ahead of the final round of group stage matches. Napoli was positioned on top with nine points, PSG in second on eight points, and Liverpool in third place with six. PSG were strong favourites to progress, as they faced Red Star Belgrade, the only side in the group that didn’t have a chance to qualify. That scenario basically meant that Liverpool and Napoli had to battle for the last qualification spot in what was effectively a knockout tie.
There were several permutations attached to the match, with Liverpool knowing that a win was essential to progress. A 1-0 would suffice, and if Napoli managed to score, Klopp’s side would then have to win by two clear goals.
Both sides approached the match on the back of 4-0 wins in their domestic leagues, so confidence certainly was not going to be an issue. However, Liverpool struggled the last time these two sides met, as a late goal resulted in Napoli running out deserved winners.
Jürgen Klopp made three changes from the team he fielded on the weekend, with Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabinho and Naby Keïta being displaced by James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The 4-3-3 has been Klopp’s go-to formation for the big matches this season because of the defensive stability it affords. This occasion was no different, despite his team having had recent domestic success using a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Carlo Ancelotti selected the same eleven players that beat Liverpool earlier in the competition, with one exception. Polish striker Arek Milik came off the bench, with Dries Mertens preferred in the starting eleven. Napoli played in the 4-4-2 formation that Ancelotti uses persistently this season. Allan and Marek Hamšík played in central midfield, with Lorenzo Insigne playing further forward alongside Dries Mertens.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation in possession against Napoli’s 4-4-2 shape in defense.
Progressive, aggressive Liverpool
The early stages of the match largely involved a struggle for control, with both sides aiming to gain command over play inside the first ten minutes. As the minutes progressed, Liverpool’s aggressivity became increasingly prominent. As a result, the majority of the play began to take place in Napoli’s defensive third.
Napoli tried to remain calm and patient, and they managed to progress up the field on a few instances, but these began to decrease with time. Klopp’s aggressors gave Napoli very little time on the ball, and constant turnovers were being forced in Liverpool’s favour.
The way in which Liverpool’s midfield players used the ball once forcing those turnovers was one of the biggest differences from the last time the two sides faced. Incisive forward passes were made frequently. Too often in Naples, Liverpool’s midfielders took the safe option when presented with the opportunity to progress vertically, and consequently Klopp’s men posed very little threat in that match.
A lot of Liverpool’s vertical passes were eventually cleared or dealt with by Kalidou Koulibaly, who played a strong game. On more than one occasion he had to assist his fullback, Mário Rui, as he appeared to struggle with Salah. Eventually though, after creating a number of chances and having a goal disallowed for offside, the deadlock was broken.
In the 34th minute, the home side opened the scoring. Mohamed Salah outmuscled Rui, and then for the first time in the match, managed to beat Koulibaly in an attacking duel. Koulibaly anticipated that Salah would cut inside onto his favored left foot, but Salah instead moved outside and gained a yard on the Senegalese defender.
With Salah then possessing the ball at an awkward angle to score, David Ospina predicted a square pass, but the Egyptian instead placed a shot near post. The ball squeezed through Ospina’s legs after he wrongly moved from his line to intercept an assist that never came.
Once Liverpool took the lead, there was a slight change in demeanour from the home side, as they now held a lead that would be enough to progress from the group. This resulted in Napoli stepping up and sustaining possession higher up the field, but once Liverpool reverted to their previous mentality without the hesitation, the play became even again.
Liverpool’s passmap shows how frequently they were able to find the danger men Mané and Salah, mostly through fullback passes.
Napoli’s hectic buildup
In the second half, Liverpool would have anticipated a fightback from the Italians, but that did not transpire. Instead, for large parts of this half, Napoli barely escaped their own half of the pitch due to their inability to progress beyond Liverpool’s offensive defending.
Liverpool’s pressing was intense and destructive for the majority of the match, but especially in the early stages of the second half. Raúl Albiol and Koulibaly were largely allowed the ball, with Liverpool then ensuring that the player receiving the next pass is aggressively pressured. This resulted in Napoli losing the ball repeatedly in the wide areas with the fullbacks. Liverpool then either immediately countered, or simply circulated the ball whilst dominating territory, thereby limiting Napoli’s time on the ball.
Often, Liverpool pressed high with four players, as Milner or Wijnaldum took turns joining the forward line of three. Roberto Firmino blocked one of Hamsik or Allan with his cover shadow, When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. and this ultimately allowed the home side to press fiercely, as Napoli very rarely found a free man.
Napoli are known for their left-sided dominance, but this was an extreme case, with Callejon hardly involved in the script.
Ancelotti injects energy
Once the match progressed beyond the hour mark, Ancelotti began to change things in a bid to influence the flow of the play. The experienced Italian made all three of his substitutes in an eight minute period from the 62nd to the 70th minute, with Arkadiusz Milik, Piotr Zieliński and Faouzi Ghoulam entering the fray.
These substitutions did impact the play to an extent, with Napoli having arguably their best period in the match from around the seventieth to eightieth minute. This didn’t appear to be due to a tactical tweak from Ancelotti though. Napoli kept the same formation and persisted with the 4-4-2 formation, with substitute players taking up largely the same roles as the players they replaced.
Napoli’s upturn seemed to be more due to an injection of vigour and revitalisation, and Klopp reacted to this eventually by introducing Keïta and Fabinho for Milner and Firmino.
As the match progressed into the latter stages, Napoli’s search for an equalizer became frantic, with Koulibaly moving forward to play as a target man. This desperation naturally opened up the match, with both sides – Liverpool in particular – getting big chances to score. Napoli’s chase for an equalizer naturally resulted in Liverpool having numerous countering opportunities.
Salah now played as the central striker so that his speed could be utilised on the break, and Keïta assumed the wide right role to quickly progress balls forward when counterattacking options presented. Sadio Mané in particular missed numerous big chances, which ultimately could have cost the home side had it not been for Alisson’s heroic save on a close range attempt by substitute striker Arek Milik in the dying seconds.
Overall, it is clear based on the performance of both sides on the night that Liverpool were the deserved winners. Liverpool’s aggressivity combined with their bravery on the ball and willingness to play directly totally unsettled Napoli, who as a result struggled to perform at their usual level for most of the contest.
Mohamed Salah contributed the only goal of the match, but Liverpool could have easily scored more after Napoli’s frantic chase for the essential equalizer. Liverpool’s inefficiency in front of goal almost came back to haunt them in the last minute as Alisson made a pivotal stop.
This performance was reminiscent of the type that saw Klopp’s men reach the final of the competition last season. A highly energetic and aggressive collective press, set the tone for an impressive performance, and it created numerous turnovers that were turned into excellent scoring chances. If Liverpool can build on this, they are surely in contention to go one better this time around.
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