How Napoli turned Serie A upside down
It has been a topsy-turvy year in Serie A this season. Inter Milan, last year’s treble winners, struggled under the stewardship of Rafael Benitez before he was replaced by Leonardo. Under the Brazilian’s leadership they have surged back up the table to become unlikely title challengers. Likewise AC Milan, previously written off as having too old and too predictable a squad have confounded their critics by taking the lead and staying there under new coach Max Allegri. Roma, last years runners-up, have had a disappointing season and lie behind surprise package Udinese, who, powered by perennial goal-machine Antonio Di Natale and the fleet-footed Chilean Alexis Sanchez, have perfected an unorthodox 3-1-4-2/3-5-1-1 system which shares some advantages with Napoli’s, though that will be touched on later.
Quietly, however, Napoli have come out of nowhere this season to challenge for the title. With a productive attack based around a lethal front three of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi and an efficient and organised defence organised in a now-rare back three, Napoli have spent much of the year challenging at the top end of the table rather than their traditional mid-to-high table placing (6th last year, 12th before that and 8th before that), and as this article is being written sit in 2nd. Presumably, then, under Walter Mazzari, they have some kind of tactical advantage?
Napoli this season have set out in an unorthodox (for readers more used to seeing the Premier League, at least. Serie A followers have seen a wealth of formations this year) 3-4-2-1 formation, which by either coincidence or design is more or less the arbiter of this year’s most prevalent formation in Serie A, the 4-3-1-2.
Napoli’s formation can possibly be called a number of different things. Essentially a 3-4-3, it could also be called a 3-4-1-2 (due to Hamsik’s deepish position), a 3-4-2-1 (if Lavezzi is put on the same axis as Hamsik), a 3-3-2-2 (due to Gargano’s flexible nature), or even a 5-2-3 (if you classify the wingbacks as defenders). For the purposes of this blog, however, I will classify it as a 3-4-2-1, due to Lavezzi’s (red band) withdrawn position behind Edinson Cavani (black band) alongside Hamsik (purple band).
The strength of this particular formation against two striker formations is, of course, the spare man at the back. This has been covered by others, and as a result I will not dwell on it too long, but the essence is that in defence it is desirable to have one player spare. Against a three man attack, a four man defence is good, and against a two man attack a three is superb. More importantly in this case, the defence is categorically the weakest part of the Napoli squad, with players like Salvatore Aronica and Gianluca Grava unlikely to get into the first teams of any of the other of the top five. By keeping a spare man at the back, matching the opposition in midfield and relying on their superior attack to win them games, Napoli manage their weaknesses well.
Just as crucially, the formation accentuates their strengths. Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena are rampaging wingbacks, both defensively aware and offensively resourceful. They understand their roles perfectly, slotting in to form a back five in the defensive phase and flying forward to support the – otherwise relatively narrow – front three in attack. Restricting them to more reserved fullback roles would blunt their attacking abilities and make them less effective; take Dossena for instance. Whilst part of a back four for Liverpool in England, he was a decent enough fullback, but with Napoli he has been superb as an offensive wingback.
One of the biggest strengths of this Napoli side, however, is its versatility and flexibility. As mentioned earlier, a three man defence is at its best when facing a two man attack. Against a three man attack, however, the extra width and movement can pull apart the defenders with ease. To combat this, the technically able Hugo Campagnaro (generally on the right hand side of the defence) steps up into midfield, and the two wingbacks drop back to become more reserved fullbacks, restoring the man advantage. As seen in the diagram, the dashed line represents the defensive movement of Campagnaro in against a three man attack. When in possession, he drops back to allow the wingbacks forward. The front three are also all extremely versatile, rotating throughout the match, whilst the disciplined and intelligent Gargano can play almost any role in midfield.
Formations can only count for so much, though, and it would be wise to look at the playing staff that carry out the tactical instructions as well.
In terms of players out, there was the seemingly-bizarre decision to loan out Fabio Quagliarella to Juventus. The occasionally spectacular but inconsistent seconda punta had been pushed onto the bench by new signing Edinson Cavani (more on him later) and as a result moved to Juve who then had the out-of-form Amauri and the ageing Alessandro Del Piero fighting for a spot beside the recently rather average Vincenzo Iaquinta. Joining him in the loan exodus were playmaker Luca Cigarini, winger Mariano Bogliacino and forward Erwin Hoffer among others. German Denis, the powerful forward, and the experienced Matteo Contini also left the club. First and foremost amongst the signings to replace them was Edinson Cavani, a rangy, powerful striker on a loan-to-buy deal from rivals Palermo. Shortly afterwards were the loan signings of Cristiano Lucarelli and Hassan Yebda, and the deals for utility forward Jose Sosa and Emilson Cribari.
So nothing too mind-blowing about the transfer business, which makes the whole issue of just how Napoli are doing so well even more interesting, considering they’re using the bare bones of a squad extremely similar to that of the Europa League battling squad a few season ago. The most obvious change, however, would be the addition of the aforementioned Cavani.
Edinson Cavani & the Napoli front three
Edinson Cavani has been on stellar form for Napoli this season, scoring 25 league goals in 31 appearances. Cavani has formed a truly lethal front three alongside existing staples Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik. Napoli tend to attack with their front three and wingbacks, occasionally supplemented by the forward charges of Walter Gargano.
The diagram to the right displays the classic Napoli movement in attack. With Cavani in the centre and moving forward, Lavezzi is to his left, drifting around halfway between a striker and a winger and opening up space. Outside of him, Dossena stays wide and swings crosses in. On the other side, Hamsik drives from deep with Maggio occasionally cutting inside beyond him. This system allows for quick, slick interchanges and switching of positions, with the only two constants being the wing-backs. Gargano is also often a participator, running from deep to threaten with long range strikes at goal.
In the end, then, a whole range of contributing factors have allowed Napoli to become a major threat in Serie A this season. A formation that is generally successful against two man strikeforces is their staple (whether through accident or design) at a time when two man strikeforces are common in Serie A. This is supplemented by players who understand each other and crucially understand and play their roles extremely well. Finally, they have a manager in Walter Mazzari who is tactically flexible and astute. Retaining the bare bones of a 3-4-3ish formation, but changing small things about it allows Napoli to adapt and change to the opposition without having to change to an unfamiliar formation.