Tactical analysis of Napoli - Roma 1-1

SSC Napoli – AS Roma: Speculative Roma survives the onslaught of a dominant Napoli (1-1)

Napoli keeps improving on the quality of their offensive game thanks to a free-roaming Lorenzo Insigne and an improved Fabián Ruiz. Roma survived the ensuing bombardment of crosses into their box thanks to a heroic Kostas Manolas, but continues their struggle to control the ball.

Napoli’s dream of challenging the Serie A supremacy of Juventus is a very, very difficult one, but at least we can say they are looking increasingly comfortable in Carlo Ancelotti’s new 4-4-2 formation. Faithful to their new manager’s style, Napoli now play more slowly and less aggressively than under Maurizio Sarri. That extra patience may just be what Napoli need to compete against Europe’s best, as they are handling themselves well in a tough Champions League group. Against Roma, Napoli hoped to continue their excellent form at home, where they hadn’t dropped a point in the league.

Roma did not look as strong as Napoli, as indicated by their seventh place in the table, but they seem to be recovering from a shaky start to the season. They cannot execute their direct, high-pressing game plan as well as last season, so Di Francesco has shifted into a lower defensive block. Against Napoli, Roma hoped to recover from the painful defeat at home against SPAL.


Ancelotti continued to field what has become his characteristic 4-4-2 formation. Allan and Marek Hamšík formed the double pivot 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 are two of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. in midfield, while the wide men took contrasting roles. On the left, Fabián Ruiz acted as an attacking playmaker moving between the wing and the center. On the right, José Callejón hugged the sideline. Up front, the rotation between between Dries Mertens and Arkadiusz Milik continued. Mertens started the previous game against Paris-Saint Germain and Milik started in this one.

On the other hand, Roma and Di Francesco continue the use of their now-standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Davide Santon played as right back instead of the more offensive Alessandro Florenzi. In midfield, the double pivot of Steven Nzonzi and Daniele De Rossi continued, while Lorenzo Pellegrini played instead of an injured Javier Pastore. Up front was the excellent attacking trio of Stephan El Shaarawy on the left, Cengiz Ünder on the right and Edin Dzeko as the striker.

Passmap Napoli for tactical analysis of Napoli - Roma 1-1

Napoli’s passmap shows their 4-4-2 formation,
which is well linked but lacks passes in the central offensive zone.

Napoli press and trap Roma

Ancelotti’s Napoli might not press as often and intense as they did under Sarri, but they can still press when needed. They are more aggressive in the initial phases of games. Insigne and Milik would press the opponent’s center backs, while Fabián and Callejón would press the full backs. However, the most interesting part was the split behavior of their double pivot when pressing.

Hamšík would mostly stay back and not press high, while Allan would move forward aggressively, usually to press Nzonzi. This meant that Roma could often achieve numerical superiority in their build-up with an often unmarked De Rossi. In defense, the fullbacks would follow Roma’s wingers if they tried to drop deep and help their teammates beat the press. However, center backs Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol would not track Dzeko and Pellegrino if they dropped deep.

Roma's 4-2-3-1 formation in possession against Napoli's 4-4-2 in defense

Roma’s structure in possession when pressed by Napoli.

One wonders if the objective of Napoli’s press was really to recover the ball high up the pitch. Perhaps Napoli was just interested in stifling Roma’s build-up from the back and make sure the ball never arrived at the feet of Roman attackers in an advantageous situation. Sometimes, however, Napoli would try to force Roma’s build-up to the wings and execute a pressing trap, with the fullback, central midfielder and wide midfielder isolating a Roma player against the sideline. This happened several times with Hysaj, Allan and Callejón on the right.

Another reason for Napoli’s more conservative press could be that Ancelotti wanted to protect his team from Roma’s counterattacking potential. Therefore, Koulibaly, Albiol and Hamšík would always stay back to protect their teammates from any dangerous attacking transitions.

Offensely, Napoli’s double pivot could easily pass the ball to Fabián and Insigne, who constantly lurked behind the midfield line of Roma’s medium 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. After beating that initial line of defense, Napoli would often move the ball wide, with Mário Rui, Callejón and Fabián ready to deliver precise crosses into the box. This strategy exploited Roma’s rather shaky defending of their box, with Kostas Manolas often being forced to heroically put out fires. With some better finishing, Napoli could have finished this first half with at least one or two goals.

In contrast, Roma did take advantage of the chances they had. Around the 14th minute, Dzeko smartly moved outside the box, linked up with Ünder and moved the aggressive Koulibaly out of position. This action disordered the Napoli defense, who did not handle Ünder’s final cutback well and El Shaarawy would ultimately score. Roma had certainly not dominated their rival or controlled the match, but they were one goal up.

Roma escape the Napoli press

In the final fifteen minutes of the first half, Roma finally started finding their way out of Napoli’s conservative press, which was losing its intensity. De Rossi and Nzonzi started to break Napoli’s pressing line, often aided by the smart mobility of Pellegrini, El Shaarawy and Dzeko. These three attackers were often at the right place and the right time to provide a good passing outlet.

This allowed Roma to finally establish some longer possessions, and reduce the frequency of Napoli’s attacks. However, as has often been the case with Di Francesco’s Roma, their possession game is still too vertical. Roma rarely recycles possession, and they often end up losing the ball unnecessarily and fail to create more chances.

Roma go into “survival mode”

The second half saw Roma behave differently. With the first half injury of De Rossi and their struggles to create chances, perhaps they decided that taking more offensive risks was not worth it. Therefore, Di Francesco opted to shift to an ever deeper 4-5-1 defensive block and concede possession almost entirely to Napoli.

Napoli's 4-4-2 structure in possession against Roma's 4-5-1 deep block.

Napoli’s structure in possession against Roma’s 4-5-1 deep block.

There is very little else to say about Roma’s second half. They defended too far away from Napoli’s goal to constantly create good counterattacks, and Napoli’s ability to pick up second balls and counterpress – also known as Allan – made this even harder. Manolas continued to be the undisputed leader of the Roma defense, finishing the game with eight clearances.

Napoli did not change the attacking approach described in the first half, either. It was an understandable decision, as they often managed to generate shots from their crossing strategy and an equalizing goal looked like just a matter of time.

To make Napoli’s attack more dynamic and unpredictable, Ancelotti replaced Milik by Mertens in the 56th minute. Mertens’ interplay with Callejón made Napoli’s offensive game more dynamic, but even then, Napoli’s main way of creating chances against Roma’s tight defense was still through crosses.

Amidst this bombardment of Roma’s box, it feels appropriate to highlight how Fabián was often the most clearsighted of Napoli’s attackers. Unlike Callejón, who produced nineteen crosses throughout the game, Fabián was far more careful and precise with his use of crosses, delivering only five very precise crosses, of which three led to shots. Deservedly so, Fabián ended this match with a stunning total of eight key passes, and a sense that he is finally adapting to his role as left midfielder.

In the end, Napoli’s insistence paid off. After yet another cross into the box, this time from Insigne, Callejón was initially unable to strike the ball properly. However, this mishit would turn into a lucky break for Napoli, as it surprised every defender in Roma’s box and allowed Mertens to sneak behind Kolarov and score the well-deserved equalizer.

Expected goals plot (xGplot) of Napoli - Roma 1-1


One could argue that Napoli abused crossing in this game sending in no less than 48 crosses, but it is hard to say this was an ineffective strategy. With some better finishing, many of those crosses could have turned into shots on target and goals, because Napoli attackers were very good at positioning themselves into scoring positions.

Despite Napoli’s struggles to score in this game, one gets the feeling that their players are feeling more and comfortable in Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 formation. And with Fabián Ruiz providing that vital link between midfield and attack, Napoli’s attack looks more fluid and dangerous than ever under Ancelotti.

On the other hand, Roma comes out of this game with many of the same doubts that have clouded Di Francesco’s era at the club. Their game on the ball is excessively vertical, and Roma rarely looks capable of defending on the ball or patiently creating chances. Roma has a strong transition game, but they need to do more than just trading punches. Roma needs to learn how to control games and slow down the tempo.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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