Napoli dominated RB Leipzig at Red Bull Arena, relying on their admirable build-up first before going more direct down the wire.
Serie A leaders Napoli lost the first leg of their Europa League Ro32 match against German club RB Leipzig via a 1-3 scoreline. While it has been said that Maurizio Sarri’s side showed no real attention to the second tier club tournament of UEFA, and instead concentrated on winning the Scudetto, Napoli exhibited a sense of purpose and urgency at the Red Bull Arena.
Trailing 1-3 from the first leg, Napoli got two goals back to draw 3-3 on aggregate but went out of the competition via the away goals rule. Now, we’ll take a look at the performance of the Partenopei away at Germany.
🎙 #Sarri: "There was a big reaction from the team. We sent out a strong, positive message ahead of our upcoming league games."
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— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) February 22, 2018
Napoli build-up into Hamsik
The Italian side possess one of the best build-ups in Europe and they showed this against Die Roten Bullen. This particular manoeuvre featured the quality of club captain Marek Hamsik. The Slovakian used intelligent movement to drag markers out of position, thereby creating open spaces for teammates and himself.
Early on, centreback Lorenzo Tonelli brought the ball forward and fed Hamsik who had moved into the central axis from the left halfspace. Hamsik one-touched the ball to Amadou Diawara who shifted the ball back to Tonelli. Hamsik then returned into the left halfspace, taking his marker Diego Demme (right central midfielder) with him. This left a large gap in between the two Leipzig central midfielders (Demme and Kevin Kampl).
During that time, the ball circulation had reached leftback Mario Rui. Next, from the centreforward position, Dries Mertens dropped back in to that free space ready to receive the ball from the leftback. Mertens dropping deep created a situational dilemma for Ibrahima Konate, the right centrehalf, on whether to follow Mertens out or stay in the defensive line (more on this later).
Simultaneously, Hamsik pushed forward in line with the Leipzig rearguard, between Konate and leftback Konrad Laimer. There is ample space in between because Insigne, hugging the touchline, kept Laimer with him. Continuing on, a simple flick from Mertens then released Hamsik through into the box. However, in this situational dilemma (mentioned earlier), Konate did ever so well to stay in line instead of following Mertens out. This allowed the French centreback to quickly recover and force Hamsik wide than to the centre, which would have been better for Napoli.
Throughout, Hamsik always found pockets of space in between the Leipzig midfield. These situations ultimately led to numerous chances for Napoli. It included Insigne rattling the post off Peter Gulacsi’s diving save though it would not have stood as the striker started in an offside position.
The opener came from the same move as Hamsik floated into a dangerous area to commence the attack. First, the Slovak moved to the left-hand side and in behind the defence, taking Demme with him. This left a gap in the central axis as Kampl (far-side central midfielder) decided not to collapse nearer to where the play was.
Insigne, who dropped deep to receive the ball, fed Hamsik in the gap before continuing his run into the box. Hamsik then fed Mertens who flicked it first time on to the on-rushing Insigne. The Italian forward forced a save from Gulacsi before Piotr Zielinski hammered the rebound into the roof of the net. As the Italians got a goal back, the tie became more interesting. Napoli proceeded to enjoy a period of dominance after breaking the deadlock.
— Everything Napoli (@NaplesAndNapoli) February 23, 2018
Napoli defensive shape and press
The Partenopei enjoyed more time on the ball but when defending, they lined up in a 4-5-1 shape. In the high bloc, they executed a press commencing as soon as the ball reaches either fullback. When defending in the mid-bloc, Napoli pressed Leipzig at the flanks. Their three midfielders, near-side fullback and near-side winger converge in a particular flank to create numerical disadvantage against RB Leipzig triangles. In addition, to maintain some sort of defensive balance, their far side winger dropped back to midfield line.
RB Leipzig bypass press
The home side enjoyed little possession and offered none in their ventures forward. Napoli keeper Pepe Reina had a relatively quiet game as Die Roten Bullen had no shots on target the whole match. But what Leipzig’s offence featured much came courtesy of their centreforward Yannick Poulsen.
The towering Swede excelled in his target man role as RB Leipzig punted long balls to him to bypass the Napoli press. Out of the 22 aerial duels Die Roten Bullen won in the match, Poulsen made sixteen of them – equal to the total of Napoli. His strike partner Timo Werner also made himself available as the pace outlet to get in behind the visitors’ rearguard, although this featured less prominently.
Die Roten Bullen’s high backline
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side lined up in a 4-4-2 formation defensively but it was rather loose and not compact, as evidenced by Napoli repeatedly piercing through their defensive lines. One defensive feature of Die Roten Bullen that proved successful was their high backline. Their backfour of Bernardo, Dayot Upamecano, Konate and Laimer held their line very well, forcing five offside calls.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) February 22, 2018
Napoli adapt to a more direct approach
After the restart, Leipzig passed the ball about with urgency and purpose. But Napoli gradually took over the match in search of a second goal. Maurizio Sarri’s men manifested their more direct approach through diagonals into either flanks. It used Insigne, Zielinski and Jose Callejon later on as Sarri freshened up personnel. The Napoli boss withdrew the not-fully fit Hamsik and introduced Callejon who offered directness, pace and vision on the wing.
The Partenopei then proceeded to bombard the hosts’ box. One Insigne diagonal ball into the box for Callejon caused trouble for RB Leipzig. The Spaniard squared the ball for Mertens and if not for Upamecano who slid in to clear the danger, Mertens would have had the easiest of chances.
Napoli drew level on aggregate as Mertens stabbed home a Callejon weighted ball. Their quest to win the tie continued well into stoppage time as Tonelli headed straight to Gulacsi. Despite tumbling out of Europe via the away goals rule, Napoli’s change of approach to a more direct one made the aggregate score more respectable.