The narrative of Serie A this season has taken something of a twist. While still sitting comfortably at the top of the table, Juventus have already lost three league games, leading to suggestions that they may not be as dominant as in years past. Below them we see something of a resurgence at Milan under Vincenzo Montella, and Atalanta are keeping pace with the top three thanks to their latest group of homegrown young players.
Napoli, however, continue to operate successfully with little media coverage. They currently sit in third place and have progressed through the group stage of the Champions League to meet Real Madrid in the first knockout round. Perhaps most impressive of all has been the quality of the tactical play that we have seen this season from Napoli under Maurizio Sarri.
This match saw Napoli host Sampdoria, who have also impressed tactically in periods of the season so far. Sampdoria have been less consistent than the side from Naples, however, with points lost due to defensive mistakes that could have easily been avoided. One of the bright lights for Sampdoria this season has been the young Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira who has slotted into the space in front of the back four and played like a veteran.
The Napoli side has taken on something of a settled look over the last few weeks. Pepe Reina remained in goal with a back four of Hysaj, Tonelli, Chiricheș and Strinić. In the absence of Koulibaly, who has joined up with the Senegal side for the African Cup of Nations, this should be the defensive unit for the next few fixtures.
The true strength of the Napoli side lies in the midfield, where captain Marek Hamšík was joined by Allan and Jorginho. In attack we saw Insigne and Callejón operating on either side of the in-form Belgian Dries Mertens.
For Sampdoria we saw Puggioni start in goal behind a back line of Periera, Silvestre, Škriniar and Regini. As with Napoli, the strength of the Sampdoria unit lies in the midfield with Praet and Barreto flanking the aforementioned Torreira. In attack, Álvarez plays a withdrawn role behind Quagliarella and Schick.
Napoli press high
One of the key components of the tactical structure of Napoli under Sarri has been their willingness to commit players forward and engage the opposition in a high press. They look to squeeze the opposition in their own half and prevent them from being able to play out and build their attack comfortably.
The interesting aspect of this is that the press is not limited to the first line of attackers but is always supported by a secondary pressing movement from the midfield players.
In the above photo, Sampdoria are under severe pressure with the goalkeeper being closed down rapidly. Behind the initial press forward, we see a line of three Napoli players followed by a line of two deeper players. Within this structure there are seven Sampdoria players – not including the goalkeeper – who are contained within the press.
That means that the long, direct pass is the only possible option that Sampdoria have in order to play out from the back safely.
Napoli build through half spaces
Another of the favoured tactical concepts used by Sarri at Napoli is to build the attacking play through the half spaces; there is a particular focus on the left-hand side of the pitch where Hamšík and Insigne can connect and overload the opposition on that side.
The Sampdoria midfield struggled through most of the match to effectively deal with the threat posed by Hamšík as he put on a captain’s performance; whether on the ball or off of it, he managed to dictate the match in the Sampdoria half through his game intelligence.
Here we have the ball in a central position on the edge of the final third for Napoli. With Sampdoria retreating into a low block to deny space, we can see that Hamšík has taken up a position in the left half space. This positioning gives the man in possession of the ball an option to shift the focus of the attack by playing into Hamšík. This would be designed to tempt one of the players in the defensive block to break ranks and engage Hamšík, creating space for Napoli to play through.
The other option is to play the ball out to Insigne in the wide left position who is isolated against the Sampdoria right-back. The presence of Hamšík in the half space prevents Sampdoria from doubling up on Insigne and creates an opportunity for Napoli to build through.
Above, you can see a situation similar that further illustrates the way that Napoli make use of this concept. Once again, the ball is central with Hamšík and Insigne is in the wide left position. The right-sided central midfielder and the right-back are both distracted by the presence and position of Hamšík, making it easy for Napoli to access the wide areas and get behind the Sampdoria defence.
The Slovakia midfielder deserves a section of his very own for his performance in this match. The Napoli captain ran the game for his side and was instrumental in all three phases of play as the match progressed. There were times when he was intelligently positioned in the half space to aid with ball circulation in the build-up phase, and he was responsible for progressing the play through the middle third as he always looked for the forward pass.
Sampdoria looked to press Napoli as they played out from the back. Unlike Napoli, however, they only fully committed two players to press and Napoli were able to play out of the press. As the pressure was applied, we often saw Hamšík on the left side drop into a deeper position, almost forming a back three and allowing the ball to be played out of pressure.
This is an aspect of his game that Hamšík has improved upon hugely under the coaching of Sarri; while previously he would only look to become involved in the play in the attacking phase, he is now a far more rounded player.
Above, Hamšík is driving with the ball through the centre of the field. With possession in this area, there are a number of passes open to him that would be easier or safer but instead he looks to push his side vertically to create an opportunity in the final third.
By playing into a team-mate’s feet in this manner, he breaks a defensive line from Sampdoria and allows his team to play from a more advanced area of the pitch, with players being able to move forward and connect with the player taking possession on the ball.
The bright spot from this match from Samp’s perspective was again the performance of the young Uruguayan midfielder. For a player who is only 20 years of age, he gave a tactically disciplined performance where he was rarely caught out of position.
This may look like a straightforward image with little to note, but the position taken up by Torreira is near perfect. While he is responsible for the central zone in the Sampdoria structure, he has also shifted over to block a dangerous passing lane, meaning that the player in possession of the ball cannot play the pass into the striker’s feet or in behind the defence for the striker to run on to.
Often in football, subtle positional changes can make all the difference.
Here, Torreira is positioned in such a way that he is protecting a pocket of space. Baretto is blocking one passing lane with his position and Torreira is stopping the ball from being played into the feet of the striker. He also adds depth to the defensive structure, and if the man in possession chooses to drive with the ball centrally, the Uruguayan midfielder is well positioned to deal with the threat.
That Napoli only won 2-1 may make the seem somewhat tight, but throughout the match they looked to create opportunities through intelligent tactical play and were in control for large parts.
The performance of Hamšík was a joy to behold as he constantly asked questions of the Sampdoria defensive unit. This is Sarri’s second season in Naples and, if the club can keep the talented tactician for another two to three years, we may finally see the title return to the south of Italy.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis