Last season was one of immense promise but little satisfaction for the residents of Naples. The overwhelming majority of them are die hard supporters of Napoli, and as we have seen so often in recent years, their club flattered to deceive.
Maurizio Sarri was an unheralded appointment when he took charge as he came to the club from the relatively small Tuscan club Empoli having spent the majority of his career in the lower leagues. It was quite the departure from the high-profile appointment of his predecessor, Rafa Benítez.
Despite the relative lack of excitement surrounding the appointment of Sarri, his side started in fantastic style playing an attacking, high tempo brand of football that the people of Naples love. Ultimately, Napoli could not keep up the pace that they had set and they found themselves falling away as perennial contenders Juventus pulled away towards the Scudetto.
Now, with Sarri in his second full season, there are clear signs that Napoli have regrouped over the course of the summer with some exciting additions to the squad. They have started the new season in the same vein of form as they did the last and many are predicting that they will provide more of a challenge to Juventus this time around.
The biggest news from Napoli was the decision from Sarri to continue with the central defensive partnership of Raúl Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly, choosing to leave summer signing from Torino Nikola Maksimović on the bench. There is a strong feeling amongst Napoli fans that over the course of the season, the Koulibaly–Maksimović pairing will take over.
The central midfield strata is without doubt one of Napoli’s strengths and in this match we saw a three-man midfield of Marek Hamšík, Jorginho and summer signing Piotr Zielinski.
Manolo Gabbiadini was preferred in the loan striking role to Arkadiusz Milik, despite the latter starting the season in fine form.
Chievo lined up in the ultra Italian 4-3-1-2 system with a very narrow attacking orientation and Roberto Inglese as the key man in their attack.
Strong defensive orientation from Napoli
In the modern game, it is important that you have a coherent strategy both in the attacking and defensive phases of the game. Part of the criticism of Napoli under Sarri last season was that they were over reliant on the physical prowess of Koulibaly, who was quick enough to readjust to cover for any defensive mistakes.
This season we are seeing a more complete defensive organisation from Napoli with every player from front to back acutely aware of their responsibilities to the team.
In the final third of the pitch Napoli are aggressive in counter-pressing the opposition. They commit numbers forward to try to force the opposition into making a mistake that would allow them to regain possession.
Gabbiadini as the lone striker is happy pushing right up to prevent the pass back to the goalkeeper. This pass under pressure is a common reaction from teams that look to reset the attacking movement and switch the ball out of the danger area to a free zone in the pitch. Usually, this would mean a pass to the far side or over the heads of the initial press into the central areas.
By taking this option away, Gabbiadini is forcing Chievo to try to either play around or through the press, and this increases the chances that they will make a mistake.
This pressing system continued into the second half when, despite having a comfortable 2-0 lead in the match, Napoli kept pressing high in the Chievo half of the field in an attempt to make life as uncomfortable for the away team as possible.
There was a slight alteration in the number of players that were being committed to advanced areas of the pitch, but this is relatively normal when Napoli have a comfortable lead. Changes in the structure of the initial press simply allow for more players to be in the central area of the field looking to attack the pass that the opposition make to escape the press.
When Chievo were able to bypass the initial pressing action from Napoli and build a period of sustained attacking pressure we saw Napoli drop in to a defensive structure that was extremely effective in preventing Chievo from accessing the final third.
I’ve highlighted the weak area of the Napoli defensive structure with a player moving into a pocket of space in a dangerous zone between the midfield and the defence of Napoli. This space is dangerous, however the defensive orientation of Napoli makes it very difficult for Chievo to play into and access this zone.
The depth and spacing of the midfield line effectively shuts down the normal passing lanes into the final third as Napoli look to force Chievo to the wide areas. If the ball does go into the wide areas then an immediate press will occur to force Chievo back.
Napoli attacking movement and trends
If the defensive structure from Napoli was at times suspect last season, their ability in the attacking phase was never in doubt. There were of course undoubtedly questions surrounding the loss in the pre-season of Gonzalo Higuaín although the attacking output of Lorenzo Insigne, José Callejón and Marek Hamšík has remained.
This match was effectively won in the wide areas with the 4-3-1-2 of Chievo ill-equipped to account for the attacking movement from the full-backs in the Napoli system. They were constantly available as an outlet to relieve pressure and to link with the wide forwards in advanced areas.
As Napoli are looking to build an attack and move into the middle third of the pitch, they have the ball with Koulibaly looking to find a pass forward. Chievo are sitting in a relatively passive block with little pressure being applied. Since the central area is so congested, Napoli are able to play the ball out to the advancing full -acks to allow them to take the ball forward and link the next phase of the attack.
Napoli were able to take this option to play around the initial defensive block time and time again.
This is an example of the routine rotational movement that Napoli would use to further access the space behind the Chievo defence. Chievo are actually spaced well, with depth to their defensive block making it difficult for Napoli to access space centrally. Unfortunately for Chievo, they were still undermanned in the final third of the pitch.
Lorenzo Insigne has moved off of the left wing and has possession of the ball. As he plays the ball to the left side to Ghoulam he runs into the central zone, forcing the defender to track him. That movement leaves Ghoulam and Hamšík with a 2v1 in the wide area and they are quickly able to play around the full-back and attack the empty space in behind.
In this example, the Chievo defensive structure is relatively stable as Napoli advance into the final third. The only weak point comes when the central defenders are too close to one another and there is a large gap between the left-sided centre-back and the left-back. This is the space that Napoli have the capacity to exploit.
Unlike on the left side, we are more likely to see Callejón holding the width and forcing the full-back to play wide too. The space created can be accessed by one of the central midfielders running from a deeper position and the right full-back either bouncing the ball into that zone via Callejón or playing the ball through himself.
In the end, 2-0 was a relatively positive result for Chievo. They were at times completely outplayed and out-thought as the home side combined beautifully in advanced areas and found passing angles and spaces which dismantled the defensive block of the Verona side.
As things stand, Napoli look noticeably stronger than they did last season. They have a squad depth that can match any other team in Serie A, and they have improved their defensive understanding hugely from last season.
Only time will tell but perhaps the city of Naples will once again have reason to celebrate at the end of the season. If that turns out to be the case then the credit and thanks for those celebrations can be laid firmly at the feet of the previously unheralded Maurizio Sarri.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis