Napoli and Milan confronted each other in the most important match of the eighth round of Serie A. The top of the table was at stake and both Gennaro Gattuso and Stefano Pioli wanted it.
Even with the absence of Rafael Leão and coach Pioli, Milan managed to win a difficult game during which the immortal talent of Zlatan Ibrahimović was determinant.
This tactical analysis breaks down the tactics of the match between Napoli and Milan. With the use of footage and data, this analysis unpacks what happened in Milan’s 1-3 win over Napoli.
Napoli lined-up according to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation: Alex Meret started in goal; Giovanni Di Lorenzo was the right-back while Mario Rui played on the other side. Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly controlled the defence. In front of them, former Chelsea player Tiémoué Bakayoko and Fabian Ruiz were deployed as the double pivot. Hirving Lozano played on the left side while Matteo Politano on the other. Lorenzo Insigne was the offensive midfielder, and Dries Mertens led the attack.
Milan started the game with their classic 4-2-3-1 formation. Gianluigi Donnarumma was the goalkeeper while Davide Calabria played as the right-back and Theo Hernández was on the other side. Simon Kjær and Alessio Romagnoli were in the centre of defence; Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer as the double pivot; Alexis Saelaemakers was the right wing whereas Ante Rebić played on the left; up front, the attacking duo was composed of Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Napoli’s defensive approach
The absence of Osimhen forced Gattuso to put Politano behind Mertens. This change was determinant in Napoli’s attacking force which meant they lost an important factor. The need for bypassing the depth and the long balls were not used because of this lack of depth. It could have been an easy solution in order to jump past Milan’s pressing.
In this way, Gattuso decided to isolate Calabria and Hernández. Ruiz and Bakayoko moved forward to press on Milan’s double pivot while Mertens and Politano never pressed heavily on the two centre-backs.
In the image above, we can see Napoli’s pentagon in the non-possession phase. Bennacer and Kessie were marked and Milan aimed for the long balls for Ibrahimović or to the wings as solutions.
However, Gattuso couldn’t do much with this approach. Napoli did not press with conviction, allowing Milan to escape it too easily. When Milan’s defenders perceived that they were being pressed, they had no problems to kick the ball away. The presence of Ibrahimović was also vital in order to maintain the ball in those cases.
As we can see in the image below, Romagnoli tried to find the former Manchester United player. In addition, he won 8/11 aerial duels, which was not bad at all considering that Manolas and Koulibaly are among some of the best jumpers in Europe.
Pioli prepared for this game very well. The first sagacity was the position of Ibrahimović. As a matter of fact, the Swedish legend always stayed on Koulibaly as the Napoli defender was the first source of play. In this way, Manolas was left with the technical tasks, something which he did not have both here and when he played in Rome.
Furthermore, one of Kessié or Bennacer usually moved forward between Çalhanoğlu and Rebić in order to create numerical superiority in Napoli’s first third. This situation hindered Napoli as they did not manage to set up opportunities from the back. In the image above, we can see how Manolas did not know what to do with the ball.
Here below, Milan did not wait for Napoli. Çalhanoğlu pressed Manolas and Ruiz was in his covered shadow, while Rebić was ready to cut on him or shorten on Di Lorenzo. As mentioned, the Greek international did not have the required tactical vision nor good ball control. As a matter of fact, he did not notice Politano who was free behind Milan’s pressing line. In this situation, lobbing the ball was necessary in order to attack the Rossoneri.
Mertens and the three offensive playmakers were not very impactful. The data shows this: Insigne didn’t have a single shot, he completed only 41 passes, he managed to complete only three dribbles (of seven), and he won only three ground duels (of nine). Meanwhile, Politano lost possession 15 times and shot two times off target. Lozano completed only 19 passes, failed three crosses, won only four duels (of seven), and he lost possession 11 times. Going back to Mertens, he failed three crosses, won only two duels (of eight), lost possession 12 times, and he completed only 23 times.
Napoli’s set-up play was really difficult. In this way, Koulibaly tried to invent something different. At the end of the first half, he moved to the left, allowing Mario Rui to sketch out the action. But Ibrahimović followed him everywhere, as we can see in the image below.
Another attempt was made in the second half, but Milan continued the man-marking – Rebić on Di Lorenzo, Çalhanoğlu on Manolas, Kessié on Ruiz, Bennacer on Bakoyoko, and Ibrahimović on Koulibaly.
In the image below we can see how Napoli tried to escape from the pressing. The Senegalese international moved forward, creating space for Mario Rui. In this way, Napoli had a man behind Milan’s first line and a possible five-vs-four.
The analysis of the four goals
Ten goals in six appearances – Ibrahimović is 39 years old but he is dominating the Serie A. Against Napoli, he put in another incredible performance with two goals, 19/26 passes (73% accuracy), two key passes, one accurate long ball, 9/16 duels won, and one tackle.
In the first goal, he showed his experience and his knack for goals. He passed in front of Koulibaly, moving past him, and he hit the ball with a mix of accuracy and vigour to score. I also would like to point out the great assist by Hernández.
In the second goal, there was a combination of mistakes. Meret should have read this cross on the far post while Mario Rui and Koulibaly’s marking of Ibrahimović was poor. The Portuguese international should have been in front of him, while Koulibaly should not have let the ball pass by him.
The third Milan goal highlighted Jens Petter Hauge’s features. We saw the long run, the good stamina, and the lucidity both in the 1 vs 1 situation and in the conclusion.
Meanwhile, Napoli’s goal showed how they should have played the game. A ferocious pressing on Milan’s players was made immediately after the loss of the ball. In this case, Bakayoko stole the ball from the feet of Kessié and started the transition in a dangerous area.
Milan maintained the leadership of Serie A. This was a huge win – in a tough pitch and against a Champions League contender. The presence of Ibrahimović was and will be crucial to keep the tension higher.
Napoli were surprised by Milan’s defensive approach and both the absence of Osimhen and the tiredness of Insigne and Mertens made the difference.