At Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi in Verona, seventh-placed Hellas Verona hosted Napoli, who sat one point above the gialloblù, occupying the sixth position in the Serie A table. Faced with the hard task of chasing a UEFA Champions League spot, which was 12 points away before kick-off, Napoli could not afford to draw or lose this game. Verona could not drop points either, as they have to watch themselves from AC Milan, Parma, Cagliari, and Bologna. All these teams are currently in a scramble for the seventh place in the table, which gives access to the preliminary stage of the Europa League.
This tactical analysis breaks down the tactics of the match between Hellas Verona and Napoli. With footage and data, this analysis tries to understand how Napoli was able to secure the three points thanks to a 2-0 win.
Unable to count on winger Fabio Borini, who received a red card over the past weekend in Verona’s game against Cagliari, manager Ivan Jurić started Mattia Zaccagni on top next to Samuel Di Carmine, who leads the team in goals with five. In Verona’s 3-4-1-2, these two forwards were supported by Valerio Verre. Miguel Veloso went back in the middle of the pitch next to Sofyan Amrabat, while the flanks featured Darko Lazović, Verona’s assist leader with five, and captain Davide Faraoni, a full-back turned right wing-back with already three goals in this Serie A campaign. The back three, Amir Rrahmani, 20-year old Marash Kumbulla and Alan Empereur, remained unchanged from Saturday’s game against Cagliari, as well as goalkeeper Marco Silvestri.
Gennaro Gattuso employed the typical 4-3-3 for his Napoli side, with David Ospina again preferred over Italian goalkeeper Alex Meret. The back four, from right to left, were Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Nikola Maksimović, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Elseid Hysaj. Diego Demme started as the holding midfielder, joined by Allan and Piotr Zieliński. Fabián Ruiz, who averages the second-most passes in the league, started on the bench. Napoli’s top scorer Arkadiusz Milik, who had nine goals prior to this match, was the centre-forward for the partenopei, with Lorenzo Insigne on the left-wing and left-footed Matteo Politano on the right. José Callejón, who leads the team in assists with six, and Dries Mertens, who has six goals and three assists so far, both started on the bench.
From the beginning, Verona tried to slip passes into the half spaces to create one-versus-one or two-versus-one situations with Napoli’s full-backs Di Lorenzo and Hysaj. This especially happened on Verona’s left-flank with wing-back Lazović and left attacking midfielder Zaccagni. It is no secret that the left side is preferred by Verona to create chances thanks to Lazović’s ability to cut inside and shoot with his predominant right foot (he has three goals this Serie A season) or serve in-swinging crosses that look for committed runs by Di Carmine, Verre, and Faraoni.
During this game, 34 percent of Verona’s attacking plays came from the left side, a figure that is almost six times bigger than the rate of offensive actions on the right flank (6 percent). The picture below shows Lazović being well-positioned to take Di Lorenzo on a dribble.
This pattern remained consistent throughout the entire game, with Zaccagni and Lazović moving and combining dangerously on the left side, a few times succeeding in creating situations of numerical advantage. To prevent Verona from creating this kind of superiority on the flanks, Gattuso asked his wingers, Politano and Insigne, to make defensive sacrifices and support full-backs Di Lorenzo and Hysaj. This proved to be a strenuous task given the high mobility of Verona’s attacking midfielders and wing-backs.
Gattuso wants Napoli to build out from the back, and this game was no different in that regard. Verona, however, was often punctual in their defensive movements. The image below shows Verona going for a man-to-man defensive approach to prevent Napoli from having free outlets and connecting passes to reach the front three players. Verona’s objective was to have Napoli’s goalkeeper Ospina kick the ball long or, alternatively, play a dangerous short pass on which the gialloblù were well-positioned to apply strong pressure.
Napoli’s three midfielders, Demme, Allan, and Zieliński, were very dynamic and kept rotating in their positions. They especially made runs forward aimed at either exploiting the pockets of space between Verona’s defensive and midfield lines or supporting the front three to receive lay-off passes. The picture below shows both Zieliński and Allan being very high up the pitch and committedly joining Napoli’s offensive plays.
The movements of Napoli’s midfielders also had the purpose of creating extra passing lanes for when the Napoli’s back four were in possession. The pictures below show how Allan took advantage of the fact that the Verona defensive line was busy taking care of Milik, Politano, and Insigne to occupy the space in front of them.
The difference-maker in this game turned out to be the two teams’ approach to defending set pieces. Napoli opted for a mixed zonal and man-marking strategy, as shown in the image below. The man-for-man match-ups were aimed at containing Verona’s biggest aerial threats, that is the three physically-structured centre-backs Rrahmani, Kumbulla, and Empereur.
Verona’s zonal marking did not function properly in this game. As the gialloblù decided to only man-mark Napoli’s two centre-backs, Koulibaly and Maksimovic, other aerial threats remained free, like Napoli’s 186-centimetres tall Milik. In the 38th minute, it was indeed Napoli’s top-scorer Milik who headed the ball completely undisturbed to give his side the 1-0 lead.
Satisfied with the 1-0 lead away, Napoli spent most of their second half shaped into a 4-5-1. The pictures below show Napoli’s willingness to defend compactly in a midfield line of five, congesting the spaces between the back four, the midfield and the lone striker, Milik (then subbed off for Mertens). Insigne and Politano (Lozano, from the 84th minute on) aligned with the three midfielders, who had the job of stepping on Verona’s playmakers Miguel Veloso and Amrabat whenever these had the ball at their feet.
In the meantime, Verona kept relying on their tireless wing-backs to create offensive threats. In the 62nd minute, Faraoni made one of his usual committed runs on the far post and scored with a header, but the goal was taken away by VAR due to a handball in the build-up. By introducing forwards Stępiński and Pazzini into the game, Jurić was able to keep the intensity of Verona’s pressure high on Napoli’s centre-backs, although his side could not find the equalizer. In the 90th minute, Lozano scored the goal that put the game to bed with a header, again, from a corner kick.
The match statistics are in favour of Napoli, who had eight shots on goal against Verona’s three. The hosts were nonetheless able to bring offensive threats to the Napoli goal, and only a lack of accuracy by Verre kept them from gaining the lead in the first half (completely unmarked, Verre chested a ball over the crossbar from one metre out). Set pieces proved decisive in this match, as both Napoli’s goals were headers off of corner kicks. Verona will have to revise their zonal marking, because, especially in the first goal, Milik was left free when he headed in the winning goal for Napoli.
Verona’s quest for a Europa League spot is not over, but it has now become more challenging. They are now sitting ninth in the table, as they have just been surpassed by direct rivals AC Milan and Parma. Napoli adds another victory to their positive streak, making it four in a row in Serie A. Considering the recent victory in the Coppa Italia final, Gattuso’s side can be said to be enjoying strong momentum as they prepare to host penultimate SPAL on Sunday.