Napoli – Liverpool: Late Napoli Goals Defeat Champions League Holders In Tight Game (2-0)
Late goals from Dries Mertens and Fernando Llorente gave Napoli the win in an otherwise close game. Napoli’s defensive scheme was somewhat effective and in attack they managed to bring the ball into decent areas out wide. For much of the game, though, they were unable to find an end product. Many of Liverpool’s better moments came in transition, while against Napoli’s organized defensive phases Klopp’s side sometimes looked short on ideas.
Tactical analysis by Josh Manley.
For the second season running, the Champions League group stage draw has placed Napoli and Liverpool in the same group. Last season, both sides won their respective home games. In Napoli’s home fixture, they managed to secure a 1-0 win without allowing Liverpool a shot on target.
Napoli started the Serie A season with high scoring games – on the opening day they beat Fiorentina 4-3 away from home, but then Carlo Ancelotti’s side were beaten away at Juventus by the same scoreline.
For this game, Ancelotti made three changes from their league win over Sampdoria at the weekend. Nikola Maksimović, Eljif Elmas and Piotr Zieliński were all relegated to the bench as Kostas Manolas, Allan and Lorenzo Insigne all came into the starting lineup with Napoli starting in their 4-4-2 shape.
Liverpool also made three changes from the side that beat Newcastle at the weekend as they made it five wins from their first five league games. Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Roberto Firmino were introduced to the starting lineup, replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Georginio Wijnaldum and Divock Origi in Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 system.
Napoli in possession.
Napoli find space on the left
From their base 4-4-2 shape, the home side often formed 4-2-4 variations in possession, with the wingers joining the last line relatively often, and leaving the team’s structure somewhat flat as a result. An exception to this was Mertens, who drifted into some good positions in the right 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. between the lines, especially in the first half.
This sometimes led them to speculative long passes behind the Liverpool defense, as players on the ball sometimes lacked options showing for the ball to feet. This also meant that Napoli’s possession game at times could appear to lack tempo, as the shortage of immediate options for the ball carrier often meant awkward moments when they were waiting for movement ahead of them.
Nevertheless, there was also promise for Napoli against Liverpool’s pressing. Liverpool approached the opponent in their usual narrow 4-3-3 pressing shape. While the positioning of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané often looked to discourage the immediate pass from Napoli’s center-backs to the fullbacks, they were often able to reach the wide areas anyway.
Allan and Fabián Ruiz often positioned themselves in order to receive in the gaps between Firmino and the two wingers. From here, they were usually able to shift the ball out to the fullbacks where Liverpool usually did not have immediate pressure on the ball.
The fullbacks for Napoli behaved slightly asymmetric, something which became increasingly apparent as the game progressed. Mário Rui at left back often played substantially higher than his counterpart on the right side Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who usually stayed closer to his center-backs.
The wingers also then positioned themselves accordingly, with José Callejón holding wider positions on the right as Di Lorenzo was not to be relied on to provide attacking width. Insigne on the other side would still start from wide positions at times, but also had plenty of freedom to drift inside and take Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attention to create more space for the overlapping runs of Rui.
With Salah holding a high position in order to gamble on counterattacks when Napoli had the ball, Rui’s runs were often untracked, and some of Napoli’s brighter moments in attack came from the ball being switched to Rui on this side.
Indeed, the best chance of the game up until the scoring came just after half-time and was created from a Rui cross from the left side, which led to Mertens effort from very close range being brilliantly saved by Alisson.
Liverpool unable to find cutting edge
Some of Liverpool’s best moments in the game were from promising counterattacks which subsequently broke down when it came to the final pass or dribble. Otherwise, they struggled to create a great deal of danger, especially when Napoli sat back and defended deeper.
Liverpool again attacked in their regular 4-3-3 formation. In the first half, especially, the right side of the attack seemed slightly more active, with Salah up against Rui looking like a potential mismatch in one of their early duels.
Liverpool in possession.
On that right side, Henderson as the central midfielder would balance Alexander-Arnold’s positioning, dropping deeper into the right halfspace when the right back went forward, and remaining in higher positions when Alexander-Arnold stayed deeper.
On the left, Mané would usually drift inside, with Robertson holding the width. However the left back only rarely ventured so far forward, so Liverpool seemed to be lacking some width in advanced positions on the left, as Mané moved inside into central positions earlier than Salah did on the right.
Napoli defended against this in a zonal 4-4-2 shape. Mertens and Hirving Lozano would usually start pressing against the center-backs, while also trying to cut off passes into Fabinho in defensive midfield. When the ball went to the Liverpool fullbacks though, the positions of Lozano or Mertens were often such that Fabinho was able to receive the ball from the fullback, as the nearest Napoli striker had not moved into a suitable covering position to prevent the pass back inside after pressing the center-back.
Liverpool then were sometimes able to get through Napoli pressure this way. On a couple of occasions Fabinho hit switches of play A pass from one side to the other. or passes over the top to Salah which looked challenging for the Napoli defense.
Generally though, once Napoli dropped back into deeper defending, they usually looked quite secure. There were some movements on the Liverpool right wing with off the ball runs from the likes of Henderson and Alexander-Arnold to support Salah on the ball which looked potentially promising, and occasionally Mané was able to pick up some good positions in the left halfspace when Callejón opened this space while pressuring the ball in wide areas.
Napoli strike with late goals
After the half-time break not much changed with regard to these patterns. For a long time the game was somewhat of a stalemate, other than Mertens’ very good chance early in the half.
Just over twenty minutes into the second half both managers decided on changes. Ancelotti brought on Zieliński at left midfield to replace Insigne. This was likely a planned substitution as Insigne was still recovering from a recent injury.
Alongside this change was the introduction of Wijnaldum in place of Milner for Liverpool. Part of Liverpool’s issue in creating chances was perhaps the choice of starting midfielders, with Henderson and Milner as number eights. It could be said that these two are not the most creative midfielders, and perhaps it was thought that Wijnaldum could add some attacking threat.
Ancelotti decided to use his other two substitutes in the next ten minutes too. Fernando Llorente came on for Lozano, giving Napoli a more direct option in attack as they looked for a breakthrough. Elmas also came on for Allan in central midfield.
Ironically, the period of time in which Napoli scored the opening goal was actually probably their worst in the match. There were sloppy passes and their energy levels appeared to be low as Liverpool started to gain more of a foothold and play more of the game in Napoli’s half.
After winning a second ball from a long pass though, Napoli were able to break through, shifting the ball out to the right side where Callejón was fouled in the box by Robertson, resulting in a penalty for Napoli. Mertens scored the penalty although Adrián managed to get a hand on it, and the score was 1-0 to Napoli.
Napoli’s second goal was gifted to them in stoppage time as a rare mistake from Virgil van Dijk presented an opportunity for Llorente to score from close range, to make the final scoreline 2-0 for Napoli.
Napoli’s performance was solid enough and they limited Liverpool in attack, which has proved a tough task for plenty of teams in the last year. Although not outstanding in attack, Ancelotti’s side managed to convert the chances Liverpool handed to them and that was what ultimately decided the game.
Liverpool’s performance was not disastrous, and on another day they might have walked away with a draw. They lacked some incisiveness in their attacks, but with the quality they possess in that area of the pitch, this aspect is probably not something they will worry about long-term.
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