Liverpool – SSC Napoli: Napoli frustrate as Jürgen Klopp cannot rid his side of Carlo Ancelotti’s hoodoo (1-1)
Both sides shared their frustrations in possession, but Liverpool struggled the most, in their attempts to question a very well-organized Napoli 4-4-2 deep block. Napoli’s clinical edge gave them the advantage for the majority of the match, but it were Klopp’s changes which offered Liverpool a way back in.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Liverpool have only suffered one defeat this season – a 2-0 away loss against none other than their opponents for this encounter. The toughest test they have faced all season, arguably, is what separated them from putting themselves through to the knockout stages with a game to spare.
In Klopp’s attempt to secure that, he made three key changes from the 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace at the weekend: Joe Gomez replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back, James Milner stepped into the midfield ahead of Georginio Wijnaldum, and Mohamed Salah returned to the eleven in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Having drawn five of their last six games in all competitions, it is fair to say Napoli’s form has not quite resembled the quality of a side that beat the in-form team in European football. Nonetheless, league form was not of concern here; guaranteeing themselves a place in the next round was the target, which they could secure with a surprise victory.
Hindered by injuries to Lorenzo Insigne and Arkadiusz Milik, Ancelotti’s hand was forced as he made four changes from the side which drew 1-1 away to AC Milan. Elseid Hysaj, Eljif Elmas, José Callejón and Insigne all departed the eleven for Kostas Manolas to enter the defensive frame, which pushed Giovanni Di Lorenzo into a right midfield role. Elsewhere, Mário Rui took over at left back, whilst Fabián Ruiz and Dries Mertens returned to their natural positions as central midfielder and center forward, respectively.
Battle of the back threes pays little dividends
Despite both firmly posing back fours out of possession, these two sides favored the back three approach in possession. Napoli, more rigidly, had Nikola Maksimović move inwards to create a solid trio, whereas Liverpool’s own was far more situational, with any one of the central midfielders or fullbacks plugging the hole on either side of the central defenders.
In Napoli’s case, it was mostly unsuccessful. In buildup, they lacked answers to Liverpool’s press. They did often gained access inside to Fabián, because Jordan Henderson would drop back to cover runs behind Gomez – who stepped out to press high – the Spaniard was then readily available. However, he was still under intense pressure when he received the ball and had very few clear options around him. At best, this allowed them to briefly recycle the ball.
Where Napoli showed the most intent was through the center-backs firing it into the feet of any of the three central attackers, but the weight of the passes required made it nigh on impossible to control, let alone turn with, under pressure, so this led to more mistakes than it did cause breakthroughs.
The hosts’ efforts in a similar kind of shape – albeit more fluid and off-the-cuff – were also quite dim, even if they were managing to pin back Napoli somewhat.
The main aim was to provide better connections across the back-line to be able to recycle the ball back and forth. For a while, this created an ineffective U-shape, When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . with the fullbacks pushing on as wingers and one of the near-sided central-midfielder or wide attacker dropping just deep of them to receive by Napoli’s wide midfielder, but this was easy to close down and force back.
What was so impressive about Napoli’s 4-4-2 block, which completely stifled Liverpool’s possession play, was how vertically compact it was, as well as how it staggered itself. To cover for switches, the far-sided wide-midfielder would preempt the pass by moving deeper in towards his fullback partner, which could also shut down any diagonal options short inside the halfspace. 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. This way, when Liverpool moved it across there, there was blockage against passes into the middle, which afforded the far-sided midfielders more time to get back in.
Example of Napoli’s midfield staggering to help defend against transitions across from Liverpool.
The box shapes created by the near-sided half of Napoli’s defense and midfield were key in shutting down the wide triangles Liverpool formed. Every time they tried to access the inside forward, they had no time to turn around and find the option across.
They were also easily able to press man-for-man in these situations, which limited the types of deliveries the home side could resort to. So, instead of their usual, optimal deep and angled out-swinging crosses, they had players cutting back into those spaces but then floating in slow and high crosses which did not attack the space in behind and were easily dealt with in the air.
What they gained in defensive solidity, though, Napoli lost in attacking substance. Their counterattacks were very limited due to how deep they were willing to defend. Their most common plan involved Mertens peeling wide to the right to receive and to be a potential diagonal link backwards or forwards into Hirving Lozano, who was tasked with driving through the central channel to pin back both Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren. Add to that Liverpool’s relentless counterpress and they did not stand a chance.
A surprise lead
In spite of their failure to threaten, Napoli were the side that took the lead. Rather fortuitously, Mertens was able to go clean through after incidentally injuring Van Dijk in an aerial duel before the away side claimed the second ball, moved it wide, and played it over the top for his darting run into the then-open channel. Finished in true style, the Belgian shocked the crowd into silence.
Liverpool took their time to respond but eventually got there. What had so far proved to be their most clinical way through was through forced combinations in from the left. First, it was Milner whose one-two exchange led to him scuff a good square ball opportunity. Then, in the forty-first minute, it was Sadio Mané, who had wriggled free of Allan to access Firmino, where the Brazilian then played a delightful flick return to find him at the byline. With a multitude of options to aim at, he failed to find the right one as Napoli cleared their lines.
Liverpool pile on the pressure
The second half saw a more drastic approach taken by Liverpool. The moving of the ball from side-to-side was far more dynamic in terms of the now persistent switches. Maybe this lack of pace in their first half display was to ensure some safety early on but, in any case, they were far more willing to go to this length to stretch Napoli out as thin as they could, even if the player they were feeding was already under some level of pressure.
This also facilitated for the players deep of those recipients to be in far better and far more open positions to whip in out-swinging deliveries on the diagonal. The issue with these was that they were far too loopy and towards the back post where Napoli could happily contest the ball in the air.
That being said, the question of intention might be one worth reconsidering following a mistake Alex Meret made when coming to claim one of those looping crosses in from the right. His dropped catch fell kindly for Firmino, whose half volley was denied on the line by Kalidou Koulibaly.
Firmino was at the center of the chances again ten minutes later, just after the hour mark, but this time from a slightly different buildup. As the game wore on, it became stretched – needlessly so from a Napoli point of view – and, having seen Klopp bring on Oxlade-Chamberlain for Gomez to switch to a 4-2-3-1 setup, Liverpool now had a greater threat not only for combining centrally, but also in support of counterattacks.
The key in these attacks were the small individual movements. The first chance of any note in transition came just prior for Salah, as Robertson burst through into the space between the lines, he was able to successfully find Salah for an open shot thanks to the Egyptian international’s slight double movement to send Koulibaly off-scent.
For Firmino’s bigger chance, Mané was the source of the problem for Napoli’s back-four as his own double movement enabled him to get clean on the inside of the opposition right back, where he could then play across to Oxlade-Chamberlain. With Salah pinning back the central defenders, this allowed Firmino, the fourth attacker, to waltz in at the back post free from deep, where a delightful clipped cross found the Brazilian’s head, but the header did not find the target by any means.
Klopp’s men did eventually get their just deserts, though. A couple of minutes later, having bombarded Napoli with switch upon switch to run them ragged, they were able to force their opponent’s defense way back into their own box which meant the headed clearances of the clipped balls towards the far post were now going out for corners rather than straight clearances up the pitch. It was from one of those resulting corners where Liverpool equalized. It was a simple mismatch in the end as Lovren came steaming in to leap above Mertens and guide his header into the far corner.
Despite intense Liverpool pressure for the remaining twenty-five minutes, there was very little to say about the chances they created, as Napoli were still comfortable defending open play aerial balls, and were also getting themselves up the pitch on occasion. Their counterattacks continued to be unsuccessful, even with the introduction of Fernando Llorente as a target man, but what they did was enough to see out the game and claim a crucial point in a hostile ground.
In truth, Napoli edged this encounter and will feel hard done by, especially since they have to now get a result in Salzburg to ensure qualification to the knockout rounds. On the flip side, they can be delighted with an away point at the reigning champions, even if it extends their run of games without victory to seven in all competitions, with six of those having ended all square, remarkably. However, both sides’ ‘home bankers’ should see them return to winning ways ahead of a busy month.
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