Simplicity Is The Ultimate Form Of Sophistication

Carlo Ancelotti left Napoli in ruins, eleventh in Serie A and with their confidence shattered. At first, even Gennaro Gattuso could not handle the ruins, until the missing piece of the puzzle completed the manager’s scheme, leading his team into sixth place through the simplicity of his ideas. 

Written by Kareem Bianchi.

By the end of December, Napoli sat eleventh in Serie A. Four games into manager Gennaro Gattuso’s tenure, their record read three defeats and only one win. 

Carlo Ancelotti’s long-awaited departure did not seem to have overturned the flow of what had appeared to hold Napoli back. Player uprising had shown their former manager the door, yet when Gattuso took charge, chaotic performances persisted, suggesting that the extent to which issues spread crossed the boundaries of the psychological sphere previously touched on in this article

Structural issues related to personnel stuck to the core of Gattuso’s side, as the use of Fabián Ruiz’s – an offensive midfielder – at the base of midfield exemplified Napoli’s void in that position. So despite the new manager’s attempts, problems laid at the foundation, crying for support from the top. 

Thus, as soon as the winter transfer window opened, president Aurelio de Laurentiis made sure to acquire the services of a holding midfielder capable of restoring order in the middle of the park. The midfielder chosen for the task was Leipzig’s Diego Demme, whose defensive contribution instantly came clear during his debut as a starter handed Napoli a win against Lazio in the Coppa Italia just ten days after a Demme-less side had lost to Inzaghi’s men in Serie A.

Ever since, Napoli have fully embraced Gattuso’s ideas, taking down Juventus shortly after their Coppa Italia quarter-final success. Then, they went on to defeat Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-final away leg and drew to Barcelona in the Champions League Round of Sixteen two weeks later. 

Finding a six

Right from his first press conference, Gattuso made his football idea clear, as well as painting a picture of the route he intended to take. The manager stated how two lines of four in possession do not suit his philosophy, deciding to stick to the 4-3-3 shape that accompanied him through his time at AC Milan. So after brushing aside Ancelotti’s asymmetric 4-4-2 formation, on his debut against Parma, Gattuso fielded Allan at the base of midfield, before replacing the Brazilian with Fabián in the subsequent games. 

Neither Fabián nor Allan were able to satisfy the manager’s instructions when playing as the lone number six. Their aggressive tendencies without the ball would expose the backline too much, which, as a result, also led to excessive pressure being put on the defenders.

Fabián’s bypassed twice as he focuses on the ball instead of the space to cover.

This might have been the cause for many of the individual mistakes Napoli were victims of throughout the first weeks of Gattuso’s tenure. Quite curiously, many of these slip-ups actually involved slips. Although entirely random events, often the situations they occurred in saw Napoli’s lines disjointed, with acres of space to attack from the opponents. 

To make things worse, Allan’s and Fabián’s struggles did not end out of possession, but were carried out on the ball as well. Gattuso explained the requirements for his six in possession when talking about Demme in the Napoli-Juventus pre-match press conference. “He turns complicated tasks into easy ones. He is a footballer who simplifies everything. He knows where to move and he can improve even further in terms of positioning. He’s a linear player, he knows how to cover space and guarantees balance. His teammates know they can rely on him”. 

Ultimately, Gattuso expects his holding midfielder to be correctly positioned to aid the most important aspect of his possession game: the buildup. He needs to be aware of where and when to move as well as how to maneuver the ball effectively. Allan and Fabián were simply unable to satisfy the manager’s instructions, with the two making too many touches and struggling to deal with the pressure they would inevitably draw upon themselves.

Finally, after four defeats in six games, once Gattuso found his number six, everything started flowing, with the turning point coming in the Coppa Italia quarter-final against Lazio. 

Napoli’s turnaround

Napoli play in a 4-3-3 shape that places much of its emphasis on simplicity in possession, always looking to play out from the back through the use of the formation’s natural triangles. The buildup is performed with patience in an attempt to invite the pressing and create spaces behind the opposition’s lines. The goalkeeper is also heavily involved on the ball and encouraged to participate by Gattuso.  

Both fullbacks remain quite deep during buildup to overload deep areas, however, as the ball is played forward, they push up to support the receiver and preserve passing angles down the flanks. After this, Napoli can attack with space at their disposal if they successfully draw out their opponent. This goal against Lazio is a good example of this. 

Lots of the combinations occur down the flanks, with frequent switches to catch the opposition off guard. Fullbacks and wingers provide width, while the interiors stay narrow in the halfspace, making runs in behind or dropping deep. Subsequently, the winger or dropping striker can then fill in the vacated space. 

Due to the areas the possession develops in, the six has a rather marginal – yet subtly key – role in possession which mainly consists of providing a central link between flanks. Furthermore, as the ball is moved forward, Demme is also the player to remain deeper to protect the backline during defensive transitions. Therefore, since the fullbacks and central midfielders push quite high during attacks, his responsibility in rest defense holds weight.

Napoli’s buildup rotations stretch Lazio’s defensive structure.

Essentially, Napoli’s possession has the intention of progressing through the wings, with the center of the pitch mainly being used to link each side through the holding midfielder or center-forward.

The intentions are quite visible and quality buildup sequences showcase Napoli’s principles clearly, however, various issues still hold Gattuso’s side back. 

Since the combinations during buildup often occur down the flanks, Napoli sometimes have a hard time carrying out their passing game when spaces are congested. When unable to stretch the opposition’s lines and attack with space up front, the passing becomes slow and ineffective. Consequently, against set defenses their main final third resort becomes the classic Insigne – Callejón connection that defined the Sarri era, turning the offense predictable due to the slow pace and lack of alternatives. From this point of view, it has been a step back from Ancelotti’s extremely ambitious – high risk high reward – fluid and free-flowing offense.

Goal kicks

A clear example of Gattuso’s philosophy is the way Napoli patiently builds up from goal kicks. Staying true to the principles of overloading their penalty area to attract as many opposition men as possible deep, a clever example can be observed in a buildup sequence against Inter in the Coppa Italia. 

Faced with Inter’s man-oriented pressing, they formed a 2-2 structure with the two central defenders positioning themselves on the same line as the goalkeeper just outside the six-yard box. Ahead of the goalkeeper, the six and an interior – Fabián in this case – stayed narrow. 

Meanwhile, Inter applied pressure through the strikers, in charge of pressing the center-backs and goalkeeper, and a midfielder marking the six. By creating a structure with two number sixes Gattuso’s men could easily prompt a decisional crisis for the opposition midfielder. He would now have to stay close to both pivots as well as keeping his eye a possible wall-pass to the center-back. With the two fullbacks positioned deep to further support the buildup, due to the distance from Inter’s wing-backs, they had time to receive and execute an action after the ball was played wide.

Napoli’s goal kick against Inter.

Counterintuitive defense

Having been used to a very aggressive Napoli side off the ball – often at their own expense – under Ancelotti, doubts immediately started to rise when Gattuso decided to employ a medium block in a 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 shape. The midfield did not appear to be suited to defending deep for long phases of play, at least until Demme’s defensive timing and reading of the play eased the transition. 

Gattuso’s Napoli rarely presses the ball high, preferring to cover passing lanes from a medium block and maintain a very compact structure that denies any sort of entry into the space between the lines. Nevertheless, they do so in a proactive manner, pressing the defenders to reduce their time to devise solutions. 

This task is taken up by the striker, who’s also responsible for marking the opposing number six and / or blocking passes into him while the ball-near central midfielder steps out to press the unmarked center-back. Simultaneously, the wingers will move deeper into a narrow position near the interiors to congest the halfspaces. In doing so, they are also able to keep control of the fullbacks, while the six is alert and reactive to shift to the halfspace and make sure to congest the space around the ball when necessary. 

The defensive situation described above was particularly evident against Barcelona. Napoli were able to apply consistent pressure on the ball-carriers and form a cage around Lionel Messi and the ball, ultimately preventing their opponents from progressing the ball in any kind of way.

Napoli’s 4-1-4-1 medium block against Barcelona.

Although Napoli have been able to achieve a good defensive solidity under Gattuso, their defensive structure is still not flawless, and likewise the interiors’ pressing. At times when stepping out the pressing angle is inadequate, exposing space behind them as they vacate their position. As such, albeit being quite quick to react to passes past the midfield line, the central defenders and six can only cover the center, with Napoli becoming vulnerable to through balls behind the fullback. 


Despite an extremely slow start, as every piece of the puzzle started being fitted in its place, Gattuso’s Napoli did not appear to be willing to stop in the slightest. With seven wins in eight matches and a not too shallow draw against Barcelona in the Champions League, the simplicity in the manager’s ideas finally seemed to have found its worthy pilgrim. “99% of the players at the club are suited to my football”, said Gattuso upon being appointed, and if results are the bearer of truth, his intuition could not have been more accurate.


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