Tactical analysis Napoli - PSG 1-1 Champions League

SSC Napoli – Paris Saint-Germain: Napoli come to life after the break and draw with Neymar-dependent PSG (1-1)

The group to watch in this season’s Champions League edition is definitely group C. Liverpool’s shock defeat away against Crvena Zvezda – two hours before PSG and Napoli kicked off – only made things more interesting, as Liverpool were held on their point tally of six.

Going into this match, Napoli had collected five points and PSG four, which made the clash in the volcanic Stadio San Paolo a very interesting fixture between two top sides that both needed a result.

Carlo Ancelotti fielded his go-to formation in big games, holding on to the 4-4-2 shape with the eleven names that Napoli fans got accustomed to this season. Fabián Ruiz has fought himself in the team as a playmaker from the left, while the rest of the names – Mertens, Insigne, Koulibaly, Allan, Hamšík and others – can be considered household and do not need further introduction.

Marquinhos – who had been deployed as either a defender or a holding midfielder – was in the starting eleven, so it was a surprise to see in what shape PSG would operate. It turned out to be a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Kylian Mbappé as the striker combined with Ángel Di María and Neymar just behind him as attacking midfielders.

The fact that both nominal starters Presnel Kimpembe and Edinson Cavani were benched in a very important game is peculiar, as Thilo Kehrer got the nod to start in defense, and Julian Draxler made his first Champions League start of the season in a double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. alongside Marco Verratti.

PSG wants to dominate the ball

In the previous encounter between these teams, PSG opted for a more laid-back approach and tried to contain Napoli in a 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. From the second this match got underway, it was clear that their intentions were much different this time.

PSG’s positioning without the ball left them with a host of possibilities to press Napoli’s 4-4-2 shape

PSG’s positioning without the ball left them with a host of possibilities to press Napoli’s 4-4-2 shape.

The Parisians pressed as high as they could and wanted the ball back as soon as they lost it. Whenever Napoli sought to build up from the back, either Neymar or Di María joined Mbappé in pressing the two central defenders. Whenever one of Napoli’s fullbacks would get on the ball, PSG’s fullbacks Thomas Meunier and Juan Bernat would advance high to press, as Hamšík and Allan were taken care of by Draxler and Verratti.

This well executed partly zonal partly man-marking press by PSG resulted in almost sixty percent possession for the away side in the first half. Incidentally, though, with their couple of very skilled passers in defense, Napoli managed to play through PSG’s intense press. Especially by feeding the dropping strikers Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, who could then distribute the play to the other side.

A 5-3-1-1 was formed in those situations by PSG; Di María took up a role in the midfield trio and either Neymar or Mbappé would drop off as a number ten, some five to ten yards ahead of the midfield.

Possession play is less refined

While PSG’s play out of possession looked very well structured and coherent, their offensive plan did not.

PSG’s fullbacks played relatively high and wide, which granted the attacking midfielders Di María and Neymar a lot of positional freedom, while Julian Draxler and Marco Verratti were instructed to play behind the ball. Napoli, in their 4-4-2 shape, maintain a very straightforward compact block of four defenders and four midfielders.

PSG’s 3-4-2-1 formation turned into 3-2-4-1 when they had the ball, Napoli’s compact 4-4-2 on display as well

PSG’s 3-4-2-1 formation turned into 3-2-4-1 when they had the ball, Napoli’s compact 4-4-2 on display as well

Most of PSG’s attacks consisted out of simply feeding the ball to Neymar outside of Napoli’s block and see what might happen. This made sure PSG were very well protected against the counterattack, as they always had three defenders and the double pivot behind the ball when the Brazilian started his adventures, but as a consequence, Neymar was only supported by Mbappé, Di María and the two fullbacks.

As a result, this match was mostly played on the middle part of the field in the first half. Napoli kept a fine organization for most of the match but could not make a fist up front, while PSG had most of the ball, but could not easily penetrate the danger zones.

In stoppage time of the first half, Neymar – who else – played a ball over the top to Mbappé. Because leaving Mbappé one-versus-one is dangerous, Koulibaly stepped out of central defense, which granted Bernat the space for a ferocious inside run and a cool finish past Ospina. With their first shot from inside the six-yard box, PSG were now leading.

Passmap for tactical analysis of Napoli - PSG 1-1

Napoli crash out of the gates after the break

Was it the atmosphere inside Stadio San Paolo? A fiery Ancelotti speech? Key players that stood up in the dressing room, throwing around water bottles and fuming Napoli had to turn things around?

We will probably never know, but the fact is Napoli came out of the break like a pack of hungry wolves that had not eaten for weeks. They collectively hunted for the ball with an intensity that was nowhere to be seen in the first half.

In the first fifteen minutes of the second half, Napoli managed to get off eleven (!) shots, some of those after wonderful and quick attacks through the flanks, some after counterattacking and some after set pieces. PSG were pinned back inside their own penalty area for long spells during this phase, unable to make use of Neymar and Mbappé on the counterattack.

Just after the hour mark and after squandering multiple chances, Napoli drew level. Thiago Silva misjudged an outside-of-the-boot pass by Insigne. One unlucky Brazilian touch later, the ball fell in between Buffon, Silva and Callejón. Veteran goalkeeper Buffon tried to punch the ball away cleanly, but took out Napoli’s winger instead.

All referee Björn Kuipers – the Dutch referee experienced a very difficult night – could do was point to the spot. Insigne converted expertly and Napoli got the goal they deserved.

Expected goals plot for tactical analysis of Napoli - PSG 1-1

Personnel changes and Neymar wanting to decide it by himself

After scoring, though, Napoli immediately threw themselves back in a more defensive setting once again. For the neutrals this was a pity, of course, but an understandable choice considering the standings in the group. Since Tuchel had not adjusted PSG’s initial 3-4-2-1 shape, the last twenty-five minutes of the match looked a lot like the first half.

Both managers took off some players in this phase without adjusting the formation, as Ancelotti put Piotr Zieliński and Elseid Hysaj in for Ruiz and Nikola Maksimović. Tuchel introduced Kimpembe and Cavani, shifting Kehrer over to the role of right back and letting Mbappé take over Di María’s role.

Napoli clearly thought a point was a fine result and having spent a lot of energy just after half-time, withdrew on their own half. In the last ten minutes, the same pattern emerged over and over again: Neymar dropping back very deep to collect the ball and trying to force the winner through a dribble, a one-two or a through pass.

A pessimist will say that this is an egotistical move of a star player that wants the headlines to be about himself, and nobody else. An optimist will say that it requires courage to ask for the ball when the need is the biggest, and that Neymar wanted the responsibility to carry his team over the finish line with a positive result.

Fact of the matter is that Neymar’s dribbles and other on-ball actions did not amount to actual scoring chances for his team. PSG’s best chance to equalize this game came from a right-sided attacking move that was poorly finished by Mbappé, which he should have left for the very same Neymar.

The match thus finished 1-1, even though Napoli had outshot PSG 13-4 in the second half. As the first half had more PSG dominance in it, this felt like a result that reflected the overall run of play.


This is without a shadow of a doubt the most interesting group going into the final two matches. The distance between the last place and the leader is only two points. Napoli are leading on goal difference and have six points, just as Liverpool. The next fixtures are PSG – Liverpool and Napoli – Crvena Zvezda.

PSG – once again – leave a Champions League game against another top side without any fulfillment about the way they have played, nor the result. Tuchel’s squad failed to dominate large parts of matches against quality opposition and despite using various approaches, Tuchel has not been getting the desired results so far.

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Erik Elias (29) is co-founder of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys other styles as well. [ View all posts ]


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