SSC Napoli – Arsenal: Arsenal Quickly Hose Down Napoli Fightback (0-1)

Although chances to score were few and far between, these two European heavyweights still managed to play out an intriguing, evenly fought contest, which saw Arsenal crowned victors. Napoli’s early threat might have provided a doorway back into the tie but a lacking clinical edge cost them, as it did at the end of the first leg.

Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.

This match was crucial for both clubs, as the Europa League offered a chance of adding some silverware to their trophy cabinet. Napoli have already been knocked out of the Coppa Italia and are currently trailing Juventus by seventeen points. For Arsenal – knocked out of all domestic cups and heavily trailing City and Liverpool – a fourth place in the Premier League might count as a prize, but it is not an actual piece of silverware to lift during a ceremony.

Off the back of their 3-1 victory at Chievo Verona, Carlo Ancelotti made just three changes to Napoli’s lineup. Dries Mertens, Elseid Hysaj and David Ospina all made way as Allan returned to the side along with Nikola Maksimović and Alex Meret. However, the big change came in the system, where he deployed the same 3-4-3 shape that had worked so well for Napoli in the Champions League group stages.

Despite managing their first away clean sheet in the Premier League on Monday, at Watford, Unai Emery still made wholesale changes. Five in total, including a switch from his 4-2-3-1 setup back to the 3-4-1-2 system. This meant Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan dropped out of attack, and Konstantinos Mavropanos, Shkodran Mustafi and Bernd Leno making way in defense.

Opening period re-illustrates Napoli nerves

Unai Emery’s initial intentions were made clear in his decision to select Aaron Ramsey over Mesut Özil. Typically, that suggests he wants a greater focus on playing and pressing without the ball, at a greater intensity.

To his credit, it worked. Napoli, reminiscent of the first leg, found it very hard to cope with the man-for-man pressing they were confronted with. The impressive thing here was that Emery was probably not fully expecting a back-three from Ancelotti, but he allowed his side’s shape to be flexible enough to adapt. As a result, the defensive figure often molded into a flat 5-2-3.

Whilst being aggressive was most certainly an aspect of Arsenal’s defense, it was not paramount, as they were quite happy to hold this shape and press upon certain triggers. This way, Arsenal were preserving energy and avoiding opening up potential gaps behind them. If anything, this led to more mistakes by Napoli as they felt increasing pressure to find the next pass out and, when they could not, Arsenal began to creep towards the ball and up the pressure.

The home side’s best hope of escape was through the inside forwards – Lorenzo Insigne (on the right) and Fabián Ruiz (on the left) – dropping very deep into midfield. Because they were each being closely followed by either wide center-back, they were immediately under pressure when trying to receive the ball. What this did do, however, was leave a vacant 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 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. to get in behind.

Napoli were all about getting in behind Arsenal’s back-line, as they had been in the first leg of this tie. Because Arsenal’s players sat off Napoli’s most prolific passer Kalidou Koulibaly, he had time to play long balls over the top. Although, because these openings were so slight they did not provide many clear paths for good attacking situations to take place.

Napoli’s buildup setup, with Fabián and Insigne dropping in against Arsenal’s 5-2-3 formation.

Napoli create the better of the early chances

For all the stale possession they enjoyed, maybe it should not have been a surprise that Napoli’s first noteworthy chance came from a counterattack. Aubameyang was far too hesitant in releasing the ball, which allowed Koulibaly to step in and dispossess him. As he likes to do, Koulibaly continued his attacking run which provided a three-versus-two situation. Fabián laid it back into Koulibaly, who weighted his ball across to José Callejón superbly, but the Spaniard’s drilled effort was straight at the feet of Petr Čech.

The next chance, however, was far more by design in possession.

There were still plenty of occasions when Nacho Monreal and Sokratis Papastathopoulos were unable to follow Insigne and Fabián respectively. Sometimes the two would drop so deep (at alternating times) and in vastly different lanes that Sokratis and Monreal elected to maintain their zonal position instead.

Napoli used this to their advantage. In the twenty-eighth minute, when they had stable possession in Arsenal’s half, Insigne managed to overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Arsenal’s midfield duo alongside Allan and Piotr Zieliński. Following this right-sided play, they quickly managed to work it across to the left and into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Here, Fabián pulled a similar trick by dropping deep and wide of him to stop the Greek defender following. This subsequently provided another midfield overload, against Xhaka, and enabled Zieliński to cross it from a favorable position – deep and from a diagonal angle. This was Napoli’s preferred crossing location, with four of their five first half crosses from the left-side coming from this angle.

By crossing from so deep, it allowed for there to be optimal space in behind, which is beneficial for loose balls and knock downs especially. In this instance, Insigne had made an early run across, which forced Koscielny deep and out of line. Then, as Zieliński delivered the in-swinger, Monreal foolishly tried to play an offside trap against Arkadiusz Milik, who was thus left onside and alone with a glorious headed chance that was horrendously misplaced. That signaled a second good opportunity for Napoli but another that was rounded off with a poor finish.

Arsenal take the lead against the run of play

The real turning point in this match was Alexandre Lacazette’s icebreaker of a free kick. Following some neat linkup play in the center, the Frenchman was brought down. Lacazette proceeded to fire the set piece from range with some venom and managed to outdo Meret, who had needlessly stepped across to his far side, leaving him rooted to the ground when the striker aimed it at his near post.

From there on out, the game died down. Napoli now had the insurmountable task of trying to score four goals in less than an hour’s worth of playtime. Without managing to create any more chances at the end of the first half, Ancelotti was forced to make an attacking change at the beginning of the second. He brought on Mertens for Maksimović, as Napoli reverted to their nominal 4-4-2 shape, that saw Insigne and Fabián switch sides and Callejón filling in as right back.

It was not suddenly all-guns-blazing, though, as Arsenal quickly sprung a very dangerous attack two minutes after the restart. Following more of the aforementioned nervy buildup play, Zieliński’s short pass to Allan was easily intercepted by substitute Mkhitaryan. He combined with Lacazette to spring in behind Koulibaly before finding a wide open Aubameyang in the center. However, the striker’s effort was comfortably placed for Meret to make the stop.

Napoli keep up the pressure

Napoli’s new setup allowed for more persistent pressure in Arsenal’s half, as it penned them in. It made it easy to recover turnovers, and that was not just because the Arsenal’s counterattacks were very one-dimensional.

What was poor about Napoli’s attacking play now was their attempts to play within the block, particularly into the halfspaces. These receivers had their back to goal, had no follow-on options, no runners, no give-and-go’s, meaning they had to play it back or carry it backwards, showing no signs of progression. Each and every one of these attacks was routinely defended.

Napoli’s attacking setup with Mertens neglecting the last line, leaving Milik as a lone target in the box.

Since Insigne and Mertens were congesting the left side, the ball often had to be switched to the right but. By doing this, it neglected the threat of Callejón’s back-post runs on crosses, and also left only Milik as an option against three center-backs. Whereas in the first half, in the 3-4-3 formation, not only was Milik an ever-present but so was Callejón on the far-side and even Insigne, by virtue of his inside, attacking position. Now, Insigne was too deep next to the fullback, as was the case on the right side too.

The hosts did have one more opportunity to level the score, when substitute Mário Rui found himself on the end of a diagonal ball over the top. The fullback nudged it past Ainsley Maitland-Niles and slid it across to the far-post to find Milik wide open, but the Polish international’s effort was a complete miskick and saw another good chance go begging.

That was just about all that could be said for Napoli on the attacking front in the second half. Arsenal remained strong as a defensive unit, eventually moving into a more solid 5-4-1 as Iwobi replaced Lacazette.


Three wins inside a week, two of which were away, two of which were against one of the toughest sides left in the Europa League and all of which finished with clean sheets for Arsenal. Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans probably would not have predicted such a clean sweep – if you want to go by score lines alone, anyway. It sees them through to the next round as they compete for Champions League qualification on both fronts, still.

With Arsenal through that left Napoli in the dust. They are on a bit of a lonely island, perched in second place in Serie A but now without a cup competition to fight for. After such promising performances in the Champions League, it seemed a bit of a surprise to see Ancelotti’s side fell out of this competition so convincingly.

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Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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