More than thirty years after their last title win, Napoli are firmly on course to win the Scudetto. The last time they won the domestic championship was in 1990, when they were led by a certain Diego Armando Maradona. Since then, there have been several close calls in their attempts to win it again, particularly in recent seasons. But Napoli have ended up falling foul of the big teams in the north – Juventus, AC Milan or Inter Milan – on every single occasion.
Luciano Spalletti's brilliant team of 2022/23 looks likely to finally bring the Serie A title back to Naples. Their numbers so far are simply incredible: 62 points won from a possible 69; 56 goals scored and just 15 conceded in 23 games. They just don’t seem to have any weakness.
Still also battling in the Champions League – having recorded outstanding victories in the group stage, beating Liverpool 4-1 at home and Ajax 6-1 away, before winning 2-0 in Eintracht Frankfurt this week – this could prove an historic season for Napoli. We’ve decided to analyse the tactics behind Spalletti’s superb side, as we explain exactly what makes them so good with five key tactical observations.
The volume of games and the high tempo at which Spalletti demands his team plays at mean there is little choice but for the coach to rotate. However, he does have a defensive core he likes to stick to: goalkeeper Alex Meret; centre-backs Amir Rrahmani and Kim Min-jae; and central midfielders Stanislav Lobotka, Frank Anguissa and Piotr Zielinksi. Full-backs Mário Rui and Giovanni Di Lorenzo play most games, too.
This consistent selection has helped produce consistent results on the pitch. And when other players are introduced, they maintain the high levels Spalletti asks of them. Every time Spalletti brings someone on, he allows those who have played the most minutes a chance to recover.
This comes in stark contrast to Napoli’s 2021/22 campaign, when Spalletti chopped and changed far more readily, particularly in midfield. This was in part down to the presence of Fabián Ruiz (who is now at Paris Saint-Germain), who was guaranteed a place in the starting XI, but Spalletti couldn’t quite find the right position for him.
This season, the midfield three (above) has near-perfect balance. They rotate constantly, and can line up in a 2-1 (with Anguissa and Lobotka at the base and Zielinski in front) or 1-2 (with Lobotka at the base and Anguissa and Zielinski just ahead). Given the evidence of the season so far, Spalletti's team seems to be benefiting from the consistency in midfield.
Spalletti’s Napoli are intense and aggressive both with and without the ball, aiming to keep their opponents as far away from their goal as possible by pressing high. They aim to win the ball back as quickly as possible after they lose it to keep up the pressure on the opposition.
They press intensely all over the pitch. From opposition goal-kicks, one of their three midfielders – usually Zielinski – will jump out to press alongside the striker and put pressure on the centre-backs and goalkeeper (below).
The wide players make up a second line of four with the other two central midfielders. These four players have long distances to travel to cover three different areas as part of the press. They move forward to support close to the first line of the press; they have to run back to battle for second balls if the opposition go long; and they move from side to side to cover the wide areas. When they drop off into a mid-block, the midfield three will quickly recover into shape to make the team as solid as possible in the centre of the pitch (below).
With all of these movements when they don’t have the ball, Napoli’s players have to work extremely hard from the start of every match.
Left winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and centre-forward Victor Osimhen have been two of the standout performers for Napoli this season. At the time of writing the Georgian has the most assists in Serie A, with nine, while Osimhen is the top scorer. His 18 goals put him five clear of anyone else.
The two are key players in Spalletti's 4-3-3 attacking formation. Kvaratskhelia is essentially the focal point of most of their attacks, despite lining up on the left. When the team has the ball in the opposition half, he constantly looks to threaten the space in behind the right-back with diagonal off-the-ball runs towards goal. He is equally happy receiving to feet and dribbling at goal – and, when he gets the ball, he does not hesitate in facing his marker up before running at them at pace (below). He prefers to cut in and use his right foot to cross or shoot, but is such a good dribbler that he can also go around the outside. When the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, he will make every effort to get into goalscoring positions by attacking the far post.
Osimhen, meanwhile, occupies central areas and aims to provide the final touch to each of his team's moves. The Nigerian striker is also responsible for leading and initiating the team’s press; he has benefited from a number of high turnovers this season, with goals coming directly after they have won the ball back.
Spalletti's Napoli are one of the top teams in Europe when it comes to set-pieces – at both ends of the pitch.
They have scored 12 goals from 196 corner-kicks in all competitions, which translates to a goal roughly every 16 corners. This is well above average in this area of the game.
They sometimes do something rather unusual at corners, positioning all of their players outside the box to give themselves space to run into and attack the ball (below). Regardless of whether they do this precisely or not, the fact they ever use such an approach gives an indication of what Spalletti wants his players to do at corners: create space and gather momentum when they run into that space.
They also often take short corners if the opposition don’t commit two players to the ball. If they do send two players out wide, that simply creates more space close to goal for the players in the centre to attack. They vary their corners impressively, and always keep their opponents guessing as to what they’re going to do.
When defending corners, they use a combination of zonal and man-marking, and Spalletti asks all 11 of his players to come back and help out. They set up with five players marking zonally close to goal. These players protect the space in front of goal if any cross is underhit, and they try to create something of a protective barrier in front of the goalkeeper – they look to block off anyone who tries to affect his attempts to punch or claim the ball. Further ahead, three players defend close to the penalty spot, blocking the runs of the opposition’s attackers. This set-up inevitably means that the defenders who are man-marking will be underloaded (below), but it has worked incredibly well.
Napoli have conceded only two goals from 179 corner-kicks in all competitions this season. Their only real weakness is the space they leave at the far post, especially following a flick-on. This is exactly how the two goals Napoli have conceded from corners have been scored.
When they are defending free-kicks, meanwhile, the team uses a unique and rather peculiar approach of positioning the defensive line in line with the penalty spot (below). This is somewhat in between what we often see: defending teams usually push up high or drop very deep to crowd the goal. Napoli's approach reduces the space for the opposition to put the ball into the gap between the goalkeeper and defence, but they also leave the goalkeeper a decent amount of space to come out and try and claim the ball.
Napoli are a better collective unit in attack than they were in 2021/22, and when fringe players like Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone play, it doesn’t weaken the side much at all.
Raspadori has a real goalscoring instinct. When he receives close to goal, his first thought is to find space to shoot and a route to goal. He can shoot off either foot, which makes him unpredictable for defenders and also ensures he can get a shot off quickly (below).
Simeone is extremely valuable when games are open. His pace and direct running mean he can take advantage of any space the opposition leave in their structure after a move breaks down. This is particularly useful when Napoli have gone ahead and their opponents are throwing players forward in search of an equaliser. Close to goal, he is a decent finisher with either foot, has the ability to provide the final ball for a teammate, and makes smart runs to try and find space in the box (below).
In short, Spalletti has, in contrast to the 2021/22 season, two back-up forwards who are dangerous, good with both feet, do great work off the ball and are good goalscorers. Crucially, this means the manager does not have to rely exclusively on Osimhen up front.
Napoli are well on course to win Serie A, and given how good they are – both in terms of entertainment and effectiveness – they will thoroughly deserve this long-awaited title.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice