On an emotionally-charged evening, Napoli honoured the late Diego Maradona by wearing a new kit echoing the “very strong bond” between the Italian club and Argentina, while a photograph of the Argentine idol stared down from the electronic scoreboard.
Napoli won 4-0 at San Paolo, one of the last times the stadium will have this name. As a matter of fact, the Italian team will rename it as the “Stadio Diego Armando Maradona”.
Napoli were set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Former SPAL goalkeeper Alex Meret started as the goalkeeper, Mario Rui as left-back and Giovanni Di Lorenzo on the other side. Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly played as centre-backs to further the existing harmony between this duo. Fabian Ruiz started along with Diego Demme as the double pivot. Former PSV winger Hirving Lozano played on the right, while Lorenzo Insigne started on the left flank. Dries Mertens led the front line with ex-Udinese offensive midfielder Piotr Zieliński.
Paulo Fonseca went with his usual formation, the 3-4-2-1. Antonio Mirante started in between the posts. The former Shakhtar Donetsk manager chose Ibañez, Bryan Cristante, and Gianluca Mancini in the defensive line, Rick Karsdorp as the right-back while ex-Juventus player Leonardo Spinazzola was on the other side. In midfield, the two central midfielders were Lorenzo Pellegrini and Jordan Veretout. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pedro played between the lines whereas former Manchester City player Edin Džeko was the lone striker.
Roma’s defensive approach
Paulo Fonseca prepared for the game by considering recent Napoli’s difficulties to deconstruct teams who play with a low barycentre. As a matter of fact, Roma did not press high like they did so far but they formed two narrow lines.
The 5-4-1 formation should have exalted the Giallorossi’s ability to counter-attack. In reality, Napoli managed to elude the density in the middle of the pitch by exploiting the full-backs and the movement of Zieliński between the lines who gave so many passing alternatives to the Azzurri players. Another aspect was the poor contribution of Edin Džeko.
The Bosnian touched the ball only 16 times, provided 6/10 passes (60% accuracy), 2/7 duels won, five possessions lost, one foul, and a weak average of shots on target. He is a key man in Roma’s build-up phase as well, when considering his physical and technical features. The extenuating circumstance is the fact that he came back to the pitch only three days ago after recovering from Covid-19.
But Roma also erred in their intensity. Napoli moved the ball quickly while the Capitolines did not manage to win second balls. Veretout got injured after the first half but he did not intercept any balls. Pellegrini lost possession 14 times, Ibanez 11 times, Pedro 18 times, and Mkhitaryan 13 times. In this way, it was also too difficult for the team to move forward.
Piotr Zieliński: the key man
Zieliński has been out for one month due to the Coronavirus, but now that the Polish international is back, he will be so important in Gattuso’s rotations. The former Empoli midfielder is precious in the midfield. He can play as a pivot in a two-man midfield as an offensive midfielder and as an inside midfielder.
His performance was illuminated by the stats: 36/40 passes completed (90% accuracy), two key passes, 2/2 long balls, one shot on target and one blocked, 4/4 dribbles, 4/6 duels won, one interception, and one clearance. Gattuso removed the double role from him – he is the midfielder assigned to play between the lines and spaces in order to replenish Napoli’s attacks. But he must lower his barycentre when out of possession.
In this way, Napoli’s defensive system became more covered. The 4-5-1 gave the possibility of avoiding risks but at the same time, the Azzurri had to recover the ball as quickly as possible in order to start the transition.
The Pole also had another task: following Pellegrini, one of the main playing sources in Roma’s build-up phase. And as we can see in the image below, the three forwards were ready to follow Cristante’s pass to Ibañez or Mancini. Zieliński marked the Italian while Ruiz stayed with Veretout. In this way, Roma were not able to pass to their offensive midfielders, Pedro and Mkhitaryan.
Napoli moved the ball quicker than in previous times when the absence of pressing and the stable movement of Zieliński were determinants. Also, Fabian Ruiz played an important game: one goal, 40/48 passes (83%), 6/6 long balls, one successful dribble, 5/6 duels won, two clearances, and four tackles.
In the image below we can see the connection between the Spaniard and Manolas. The Greek international showed more courage in the build-up phase, risking some passes and managing to escape Roma’s weak pressing. Ruiz received the ball and Zieliński found space between the lines. Both Pellegrini and Veretout were cut out by this third-man research.
Roma’s defensive system was very narrow. Pedro and Mkhitaryan have always found themselves in a middle position between their reference full-back (Di Lorenzo or Mario Rui) and one of Manolas and Koulibaly. In this way, they covered the midfielders but they allowed the full-backs to advance.
Both Spinazzola and Karsdrop were afraid of Lozano and Insigne who were always forming a 2 vs 1 with Mancini or Ibañez. But in this way, the midfield was in numerical inferiority and this constant 3 vs 2 was fatal. In the image below we can see how much space Di Lorenzo had and also how Roma pressed badly.
Napoli dominated the game. 4-0 was maybe too heavy because Roma approached the game better in the second half. In the first goal, there was a great movement by Mertens while Roma’s defensive line was messy. Mancini was already running away while Cristante and Ibañez were in a middle position. The Brazilian lost the running duel with Mertens and he committed a foul. On the free-kick, Insigne found the net.
In the image below we can see the second goal. Roma’s pressing was again so messy. Rui touched the ball delicately to Insigne who ran towards the opposite penalty area. Ruiz took the ball and scored a beauty from outside the box.
In the third goal, Spinazzola did not follow Di Lorenzo’s overlap. The ball arrived to Elmas who shot from outside the penalty area. Mirante repelled badly and Mertens punished him.
In the last goal, Napoli went off without a hitch. The left chain Insigne-Rui-Lobotka passed Roma’s unarmed pressing with a great combination. Then the ball arrived to the feet of Politano who dribbled past everyone and finished the game.
In the end, Napoli demolished Roma. The impression was that the Giallorossi paid a European away game. Some players were not clear-headed and the absences of Smalling and Kumbulla were important for this team. But this was the first defeat (on the pitch) for Roma and it does not delete the good season start.
Napoli triumphed with one of the most convincing performances of the season in Serie A. It will also be interesting to know what Gattuso will do when Osimhen will be back.