Every sport is about moments; and none more so than football. One individual error or dubious refereeing decision can knock a team’s confidence right out of them and flip a game on it’s head in a matter of seconds. Napoli’s 2-0 victory over Liverpool involved each of the two moments mentioned. A questionable penalty was awarded to the Italians just minutes before an inexplicably misplaced Virgil van Dijk pass followed suit.
Did Carlo Ancelotti’s team set the blueprint on how to deal with the European champions or did Jürgen Klopp’s boys just have a rare bad night at the office? One thing is for sure, Liverpool have fallen victim to defeat on two occasions at Stadio San Paolo inside the past 12 months.
Ancelotti sent his men out on the front foot, demanding that his team were aggressive in eliminating the central route out into both Fabinho and Henderson. In a combative 4-4-2 when out of possession, the hosts wanted to dictate the pitch’s essential areas.
As Dries Mertens presses Adrian, Allan would join him as Liverpool were limited to playing into wide areas early on.Spain international Fabian Ruiz would retreat into deeper midfield areas to cut out the second option between lines for the Reds as Napoli’s front two forced the ball wide
There was a trigger set by Ancelotti. On the scarce occasion when Liverpool would manage to play through the Napoli front two and into central midfielders, both Allan and Ruiz Napoli would drop into deeper areas, forming a ‘cage’ around the danger zones where the likes of Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah look to pick teams off.
As soon as Liverpool passed the halfway line, the trigger would go off and the two midfielders in blue forgot about the aggressive press and would instead retreat centrally.
As the game wore on, and with an open invite from the hosts, Liverpool’s full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson began to maraud forwards in the manner they so often do. With this becoming the flavour of the Champions League holder’s attacks, Napoli soon adjusted their approach.
Central midfielders Allan and Ruiz would now avoid pressing so high, instead remaining deeper to create the cage which protects the central area where Klopp’s men punish teams on a weekly basis. Wingers Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón were now creeping forwards to cause doubt in the minds of Klopp’s right and left-backs, and this halted the fluidity in Liverpool’s play as Napoli now took a foothold in the encounter.
The flip-side to this was now that there was more space for Fabinho and Henderson to collect the ball from deep and drive forwards centrally into Napoli’s half. Once the men in red got into the final third, Napoli would have six players defending the penalty area, all within the width of the goalposts, manipulating Liverpool into choosing the wide options.Central defensive partnership Kalidou Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas were constantly called upon to head the ball away from crosses, crowd key areas and block shots on the second and third balls. The central defensive duo were colossal on the night.
Napoli’s adventurous threats going forward
In possession, and much to the home support’s excitement, Napoli attacked in a 4-2-4 formation. Insigne and Callejón would provide constant width throughout as Brazilian Allan and Ruiz would remain deep, eradicating the central counter-attacks from Liverpool.
As Mertens and Lozano would take it in turns to drop deeper to link up play between the lines and also join up with their winger on each side, Liverpool became bamboozled, especially in possession with their main threat of the switching play between full-backs becoming unavailable.
As the Neapolitan crowd grew in voice, the Napoli team grew in confidence and Portuguese full-back Mário Rui was gradually creeping forwards to add yet another problem for Alexander-Arnold to worry about. As Insigne was proving to be a real thorn in the young right-back’s side throughout, Rui’s addition to the home attacks meant Insigne was now drifting inside. The Italian winger who stands at 5’3” was in the mood and became Napoli’s danger man as he cut in from the left to pick the ball up in pockets, vacating the space for Rui to attack into.
Ancelotti’s teams will always look to play and invite teams onto them. The 4-2-4 shape facilitated numerous vertical passing lines and both Koulibaly and Manolas were willing to showcase their technical prowess as Liverpool would creep forwards in hope of cutting out a stray pass, all whilst leaving the front four of Napoli in advanced positions, eager to hurt the visitors, yet patiently awaiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Second half changes
With the ball at their feet, Napoli were now almost a back three as Rui created a diagonal backline, becoming a permanent fixture in each attack.The approach brought about countless chances, including a clear one for Mertens as Insigne again collected the ball centrally before finding Rui in acres of space on the left. An inch-perfect cross was followed by a spectacular stop from Adrian as the Belgian’s volley was turned over the bar. The hosts were well on top.The stadium was now rocking and the home side’s tails were up. With the front four now staying high, even with their team out of possession, Liverpool were restricted and had to divert from their usual approach, no longer trusting short options. Napoli were showing no respect at all to the team that have reached consecutive Champions League finals in the past two seasons.As Matip launched a free-kick aimlessly forward and into Napoli’s hands, the volume around whole place went up a decibel. Liverpool were on the ropes. Or so the home crowd thought.
Two glorious openings fell Liverpool’s way in quick succession. Salah’s effort was saved smartly by Merlet while Mane wasted a 2 against 1 chance. Ancelotti is a wise old fox and knows all too well about the ‘waves’ that the visitors often have. In recent times they’ve blown the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona away in a matter of minutes, scoring quickfire goals.
The Reggiolo-born tactician could smell the threat and quickly retreated into a 4-4-2 shape, introducing Piotr Zieliński and Elif Elmas into deep-lying midfield slots and the always assiduous Fernando Llorente upfront in hope of holding the ball to buy time for teammates to support on the counter-attack.
A cage was now set-out for the remainder of the game as the hosts constantly created a box infront of the penalty area, forcing Liverpool to attack from crosses.
To beat this Liverpool you need a lot of luck. They will always create chances and you need to hope that they’re misfiring on the night. They certainly were in Naples. Ancelotti’s men were disciplined, well organised and limited Liverpool to just two clear chances.
The dubious penalty decision and uncharacteristic mistake from van Dijk went some way to awarding the points to the Italians, but Ancelotti and his team deserved all the luck they got for the defensive guts and guile they showed that were equally matched by their gallantry attacking threat throughout.
By Alex Clapham @alexclapham