On Sunday night, two of Serie A’s most out-of-form teams met in the south of Italy. With only three wins between them in each of their last five games, both Napoli and Genoa had every right to be nervy.
Genoa’s poor form has left them languishing in the bottom half of the table. Whilst there is breathing space between themselves and the relegation places, three points away at the Stadio San Paolo would have made them more secure. On the other hand, Napoli’s desire was to clearly start putting together a good run of form after a shock 2-1 loss to Empoli last week. Closing the gap with Juventus must also be high on Carlo Ancelotti’s mind.
The game was more pleasing on the eye than the scoreline would suggest. Both sides showed enormous levels of tactical discipline but perhaps they were too rigid in their game plans, however. In the below tactical analysis, we will see how Napoli and Genoa could only share the spoils.
Both sides lined up largely as expected and any changes of formation were consistent with season-long trends. Firstly, Napoli stuck to their largely tried and tested 4-4-2 formation. Carlo Ancelotti clearly favours this system. According to whoscored.com, the journeyman manager has used it 23 times this season.
There were some changes to the line-up which may have excited the Azzurri fans, however. Faouzi Ghoulam, the long-serving Algerian left-back, returned to the side. Despite recently missing two games due to his recurrent knee problems, Ghoulam’s presence was welcomed. With two assists from his seven starts this season, his attacking dynamism would give the Nepalese outfit another option on the left-hand side.
Genoa manager Cesare Prandelli, on the other hand, played up to his ‘tinkerman’ characterisation. In order to compliment defensive stability with an audacious counter-attack, his Genoa side lined up with a previously unseen 5-3-2.
Prandelli’s selection saw no major shocks. Club captain Domenico Criscito made a return to the backline following his suspension, and there were also changes in attack. Experienced attacker Goran Pandev was paired with Christian Kouamé to threaten Napoli’s defence. Antonio Sanabria, who was brought in to replace the free-scoring Krzysztof Piątek, was benched following his dismal goal-scoring return.
Napoli’s wing-play and channel movement
Genoa’s bottom-heavy 5-3-2 formation was designed to stifle Napoli’s central play, forcing balls out to the wing. Unshaken, the home side were more than happy to play in this way. Statistics from whoscored.com show that only 28% of Napoli’s attack came from the centre of the pitch. In contrast, the left and the right wing saw 40% and 32% of the attack, respectively.
Interestingly, Napoli shifted in their style of attacking options either side of half time. In the first half, the Azzurri almost exclusively moved the ball down the left side. This favoured the dynamic crossing and attacking inter-play which Ghoulam brought to the side. By stretching play out to the left, channels frequently opened up for Piotr Zieliński and his teammates to move into on the inside.
Napoli eventually broke the deadlock through exploiting the left channel. Kalidou Koulibaly brought the ball forwards, laying the ball off to his left, before darting into the space in front and drawing defenders with him. His forward’s movement then opened up a huge space for Zieliński to lay off to Dries Mertens outside of the area. Mertens shot low and into the corner: a wonderful finish.
In the second half, the Napoli hoped to stretch the packed Genoese backline across the whole width of the park. Straight from the second half kick-off, we saw former-Real Madrid wide-man José Callejón sticking wide on the right. The Spaniard was mirroring movements on the left wing. After having made 62 of his total 92 touches in the second half, the change clearly opened up his attacking possibilities.
The below images show how much this unsettled Genoa. In the first half, we saw the away side’s midfield triangle move over to offer protection with little fear of a dangerous switch of play. Napoli’s newfound width kept the visitor’s pinned back, however. Prandelli’s men were very unwilling to risk leaving wide-men isolated.
Sofascore.com shows that the home side produced 44 crosses (35 in the second half), but only 20% hit their target. Ultimately, however, Napoli did not make the most of exploiting half-spaces. Genoa defended very well but Napoli focused too much on a limited tactic of pumping balls into the box. They should have used their wide men to keep opening up the channels.
Napoli’s failure to exploit gaps
One of the consequences of Napoli’s wide men pushing Genoa’s back line deeper was that it opened up spaces in the middle of the field. Here we can argue that Ancelotti’s men were too focused on the wings and lacked variety in attack. Whilst width was maintained, Napoli failed to utilise huge gaps appearing in front of the Genoa defence.
From looking at the statistics from whoscored.com, we can see that the home side were very poor at manipulating their opponents’ obvious weaknesses in the centre of the park. For example, of the 11 interceptions which the Genoese made, only two were in front of the goal. Likewise, the visitors made a colossal 35 clearances. Of these, 14 were made with their feet but only one was from a central position outside of the area. Rarely were Genoa called on to defend in this area.
In the first half, however, Callejón saw a wonderful chance from this area saved by Andrei Radu. This chance came from Mertens getting between the lines in the middle of the pitch and unselfishly laying off for his colleague. An excellent, slicing pass from the left found the Belgian between the Genoese midfield and backline. A liquid first touch gave him plenty of space but he opted for his teammate in support. Callejón should have scored and the home side should have persisted at weaving through the precarious positioning of Genoa’s overloaded midfield.
As the half drew on and Napoli chased a winner, we saw their players start to look for the ball in this dangerous area. The below images show us one such example.
As we can see, Callejón makes an excellent slight run to collect the ball, opening up space behind him for his teammate to run into. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not taken. The problem with Napoli when they attacked, however, was that too often the space created was not utilised. They looked pedestrian and out of ideas. They’d done all the hard work to unlock a packed defence, but could not see the opportunities to attack it until late in the game.
Genoa’s declining attack
Under Prandelli, Il Grifone have been very keen to press high. Failing that, Genoa usually sit deep, hoping to hit opponents on an aggressive counter-attack to score. This game proved to be no exception: both options were used and had differing levels of effectiveness.
Early on, we saw the away side apply a disciplined high-press. In the below graphics, Genoa players clearly align themselves with their opponents. They chase back the Napoli passing options, cornering Koulibaly and eventually winning possession.
Frustratingly, Genoa’s ill-discipline let them down once again. Arguably, this was a side-effect of pressing too intensively. Whilst Cristian Romero saw a red-card last week for pulling back Mauro Icardi, Sturaro’s card appeared to be a drastic attempt to win the ball having been caught the wrong side of Allan. After regrouping at half time, Genoa frequently looked to sit back and hit the Nepalese on a counter-attack from a much deeper position.
By being unable to press as rigidly in their opponent’s half, consequently, Genoa were too far back to counter effectively. Whoscored.com shows that 10 of the visitor’s 11 dribbles came after Sturaro’s red card, five of which were unsuccessful. Naturally then, Genoa’s attacking duo could not link-up as planned.
Despite Sturaro’s red card, until half-time, Kouamé and Pandev still co-ordinated their movements well. Pandev primarily sat in front of the central three, at times forming a diamond shape. Pandev’s role as the supplier was crucial in Genoa’s equalising goal. Having brought the ball forward, he subtly laid-off Kouamé. The attacker then jinked through Napoli’s second line of defence. After receiving the ball back from his partner, Pandev’s delightful lob found Darko Lazović peeling off his man at the far post. The Serbian executed an exquisite volley to send the away fans into raptures.
In the second half, as Genoa sat deeper, their forwards’ had less chance of playing laterally. Prior to his substitution, Pandev started the second half as a ball-carrier, bringing the ball forward to alleviate pressure. Afterwards, the away side looked for Kouamé to make runs behind and utilise his blistering pace. Unfortunately, though, the Ivorian was often isolated with little support. As the game went on, Genoa grew increasingly limited in attack.
Genoa could have recorded a memorable win as their initial game plan clearly caught Napoli off-guard. In the first half, they looked very troublesome for the hosts, although this is not to say that their performance levels dropped at all. Rather, the choice to sit-off and try to attack quickly looked to be an executive decision from Prandelli. Indeed, there was no shame in a hard-earned point in the south of Italy. It just feels that poor discipline has cost them all three.
On the other hand, Ancelotti’s side are desperate to narrow the gap and add credibility to their likely second-place finish this season. Against a depleted Genoa side, however, they did nothing to boost their reputation. The home side were infuriatingly ineffective despite their enormous ball possession. They shaped up well, looked to commit men forwards and stuck to a game plan reliant on width. A lack of ideas in the final third proved to be their crux, however. Napoli’s lack of pragmatism will only hasten Juventus’ triumph.
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