Napoli – Red Bull Salzburg: Salzburg Fight Back Into The Game And Escape With A Draw (1-1)
The match started promising, with chances on both sides and the Austrians taking an early lead. However, after that goal Napoli clearly dominated for the rest of the first half, rewarding their performance with Lozano’s equalizer. Jesse Marsch’s tactical adjustment at half-time allowed for a more balanced second half, with neither team able to find the winner subsequently.
Tactical analysis and match report by Jonas G.
Napoli’s form in the league is far from impressive, with just one win out of their last five Serie A matches. Their record in the Champions League this season looks just fine, however, and with seven points from three matches, they sat in first position coming into this match. Compared to their loss against AS Roma, Carlo Ancelotti made only two changes. At center-back, Nikola Maksimović started instead of Kostas Manolas and Hirving Lozano came into the eleven thanks to his pace and quality to run in behind the opposition’s defense.
Salzburg is unchallenged for years in the Austrian Bundesliga and have won eleven out of thirteen matches, the other two games being draws. They already underlined they can compete in the Champions League as well, losing against Liverpool and Napoli in unfortunate ways rather than being played off the pitch. However, with only three points from three matches, a win here more or less counted as an obligation if Salzburg wanted to reach the knockout stages. The 5-3-2 formation Jesse Marsch chose was meant to put together the strength his team showed in the first match against Napoli, and resolve the weaknesses the Italian’s exposed. The five defenders allow for more cover against the switches from one wing to the other, that posed a lot of problems previously.
Salzburg unable to hold on to good start
Both teams already had good scoring opportunities through either Piotr Zieliński and Jérôme Onguene and after eleven minutes, Salzburg stroke first, after in-form Erling Braut Håland converted from the penalty spot. The situation originated from a typical Salzburg attack, with a long ball played behind the defense.
After the first ten minutes, it looked like an even game. However, Napoli went on to dominate for the rest of the first half. Although Jesse Marsch changed his formation, the overall pressing idea remained the same. Salzburg used three midfielders in the back of lone striker the center and guide Napoli’s buildup to the wings. In theory, the wing-backs Andreas Ulmer and Rasmus Kristensen were meant to pressure the fullbacks, and defensive midfielder Zlatko Junuzović should shift to the respective side to isolate Napoli on the wing.
Salzburg guided Napoli’s buildup to the wings. However, the Italians were able to outnumber the spaces around Junuzović start their attacks.
Although the idea was good, the Austrian team faced different problems. Kristensen and Ulmer had long ways to the fullbacks and therefore hardly got access to the Napoli player on the ball. . Junuzović had a lot of ground to cover and was outnumbered several times. Napoli did well to occupy the halfspaces 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. – on the left with Lorenzo Insigne, on the right with either Fabián Ruiz or Dries Mertens.
Napoli not only were able to outplay Salzburg’s pressing through the halfspaces, they used Lozano’s speed to attack the spaces behind the defense. Therefore, they started their buildup with short passes to attract Salzburg to press and the center-backs stepped up. This created the decisive advantage for the Mexican to run in behind. José Callejón’s header against the post just after Salzburg’s goal resulted from a similar situation.
Napoli then started to dominate Salzburg, and created one good chance after the other. However, they were wasteful and failed to score the goal. As a reaction, Jesse Marsch switched to a 5-2-1-2 shape after 35 minutes. Dominik Szoboszlai now played next to Junuzović to help him cover the spaces in front of the defenders. Despite this, Napoli were still able to tie the game in the 43rd minute, after Insigne played Lozano into a one-versus-one situation against Onguene and the Mexican international scored from seventeen meters out.
Marsch’s adjustment bring Salzburg back into the game
Salzburg’s game already improved before half-time – after Lozano’s equalizer – with a few good chances originating from fast attacks and combinations. With the substitution of Enock Mwepu for Marin Pongračić, the formation switched to a 4-3-1-2 diamond shape. This adjustment showed to be the right decision by the American manager, as his team went out to dominate after half-time.
The most important change between the two halves was that Salzburg now were able to hold on to the ball and have longer possession spells to bring their strengths into the game. The first chance came from a turnover in midfield and a counterattack. Although Napoli cleared the first attack, Salzburg recovered the ball with their counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack.and Hwang almost scored the second goal, but his shot was blocked just wide.
In their possession spells Salzburg tried to take advantage of their numerical superiority in the center. They looked to bring the ball in the spaces between Napoli’s midfield and defense – either through the center or through the offensive fullbacks. These quick combinations between the lines hardly created chances itself, but Salzburg recovered a lot of balls through their counterpressing. Napoli were not able to create counterattacking situations in this phase of the game.
After switching to the 4-3-1-2 formation, Salzburg had more players in the center and took advantage of it. They created chances with quick combinations and counterpressing.
Not only the possession game improved, Salzburg also had better access to Napoli’s buildup. In their 4-1-3-2 formation, they still had more players in the center and guided the ball to the wings. With Ulmer and Kristensen now staying deep and Szoboszlai and Mwepu pressuring the fullbacks, they were able to close all passing lanes into the center and isolated Napoli on the wing. On the left, Kristensen played more man-oriented against Insigne to reduce his influence on the game. To still be able to defend against Napoli’s switches in possession, the midfield did not shift as extremely to one side as usual. Especially Mwepu stayed wider on the right to support Kristensen if the ball was on Salzburg’s left side.
Napoli take control through their individual quality
With the second half going on and Salzburg’s intensity – especially in the counterpressing – more and more declining, Napoli had more possession again. Although they faced the problem that their buildup was isolated on the wings, they used the individual brilliance of Insigne, Ruiz and Zieliński to overcome Salzburg’s pressing with dribbles. To escape the man-orientation from Kristensen, Insigne dropped very deep and supported the buildup from the left halfspace.
However, Salzburg’s defense was much more compact than in the first half and Napoli’s long diagonals to switch the sides did not create a big problem for Marsch’s side. With the central midfielders supporting the fullbacks, they created two-versus-two situations on the wings. Napoli hardly created chances from these situations and lost the connections to the center, too.
The decisive factor that Napoli dominated the end of the second half again was their improved pressing. In the beginning of the second half, the strikers were outplayed very easily, but later on they managed to deny passes in the buildup through the center. Because Salzburg preferred to buildup through Maximilian Wöber, the right striker moved wider to pressure the left center-back. Behind him, Ruiz and Callejón moved up to mark their opponents. Salzburg failed to occupy the spaces that opened up behind the midfielders and had to play a lot of long balls.
Napoli’s improved pressing isolated Salzburg on the right side.
With their buildup situations resulting in turnovers and the intensity of their counterpressing decreasing, Salzburg got pushed back more at the end of the game. With the introduction of Fernando Llorente and Arkadiusz Milik, Ancelotti looked to score the late winner, but – although Llorente had a good scoring situation after a cross – his team was not able to create enough dangerous situations anymore.
Jesse Marsch’s idea to combine Salzburg’s strengths – pressing and Wöber’s buildup – from the first game and overcome the threat of Napoli’s switches with a back five looked good in theory, but failed on the pitch. After returning to the more familiar 4-3-1-2 shape, Salzburg dominated the second half until their intensity decreased. One point at Napoli does not look like a poor result, however, as things stand in the group, it may not be enough to challenge Napoli and Liverpool for the first and second place.
After a rough start with the early penalty, Napoli went on to dominate the first half with their good occupation of the halfspaces to outnumber Junuzović. Although they created a lot of chances, they needed just until half-time to score the equalizer. At the beginning of the second half, the defense looked incompact in the first line at allowed Salzburg to dominate the game. Not until Salzburg’s intensity against the ball decreased, Napoli came back into the game. Insigne played a major role in this with. However, against a more compact Salzburg defense, the team was not able to create big chances and relied a lot on crosses and long shots. Considering the first half, a win would have been the fair result, though. Their position in the group still looks comfortable, as they have a four-point gap to Salzburg with just two games to go.