Fiorentina 1-2 Napoli
A beautiful game in Serie A sees league favorites Napoli visit Fiorentina in what can be best described as a superb demonstration of positional play. While not quite a tactical masterpiece per se, both sides sought to play their style of play. After taking a deeper look, we see two teams playing a fluid, easy on the eye style of play that justifies their respective league positions.
Seldom do football fans get a match that provides high quality entertainment value as well as one that can be used to educate. This analysis will not follow traditional analysis structure. Instead, it aims to praise the efforts put on display by both Fiorentina and Napoli. This was a lesson on how to play football.
Fiorentina pressed in a 4-2-4 shape for most of the first half, with Bonaventura joining the forward line consisting of Gonzalez, Vlahovic and Callejon. This was done in an effort to combat Napoli and their build up structure. Napoli, for most of the Serie A season so far, deployed a flat back four with their goalkeeper Ospina sitting in between the center-backs when in their build up phase.
This puts the Fiorentina front four against the Napoli back five. The cracks in the Fiorentina press are revealed when the front four press so aggressively, they leave Anguissa and Fabian in space behind the press. This high risk press is rewarded against teams who do not possess capable and technical defenders. As we see below, Napoli positioned the aforementioned Anguissa and Fabian behind the pressing front line.
Napoli drew an aggressive press from Fiorentina by playing deep in their own third. In doing so, the ball sided forward is encouraged to drop into his own third to act as a passing option. The example below shows Insigne doing just that. Napoli have defenders who are capable of playing out from the back, however it’s the players who can hold width while dropping deep from the forward line that allow Napoli to beat such an aggressive press. Rui can find Insigne who has enough time to pass into Zielinksi who has also dropped deep from his starting #10 role.
The above still shows the Fiorentina front four and their press. It also shows us that Zielinksi has angled his run to anticipate an inside pass from Insigne. This was not a fluke or a maneuver that was done through luck. This movement, among others that will be discussed, was trained to be executed this way. Insigne is trained to drop into his own third and hold width. Zielinksi is trained to drop into a position often occupied by a more traditional #6. The Napoli players are asked to make movements that drag man-markers out of position, even if it means playing in a position that their starting role wouldn’t traditionally see them in.This still below shows us how Napoli adapted to Fiorentina changing the focus of the press. After about fifteen minutes, Odriozola began marking and pressing Insigne much more aggressively. This was done to mitigate Insigne’s growing influence when Napoli played out from defense. The original target from Insigne was Zielinkski, but after several successful passes from Insigne to Zielinksi, Pulgar began to mark him. Zielinksi picked up on this and would make forward runs into no valuable space, taking Pulgar with him. Space is now created for Fabian to move into to receive a pass from Insigne.
Fiorentina had Odriozola mark and press Insigne very aggressively. This proved to be one of Fiorentina’s fatal flaws. Insigne, as shown so far, almost always had an inside passing option to use during the build up phase. As mentioned, these movements are trained; they’re expected by Insigne and his teammates. So, each time Insigne receives the ball, he knows that he will always be able to turn and run to where Odriozola should be, creating a one versus one. Odriozola and his responsibility turn fatal for Fiorentina when his aggressive pressing and marking are beaten by a trained movement. Instead of a one versus one, Insigne has the entirety of the left flank to himself, unopposed, because his marker committed to a challenge predicted by Napoli.
We can see below that when Koulibaly is on the ball he is encouraged to go to the fullback Rui, who holds width well. Callejon is asked to press Rui while also keeping Insigne in his cover shadow. Depending on the movement of Callejon, Koulibaly would pass to either Rui, Fabian or go direct and play Zielinski. We can also see the previously mentioned deep positioning of Insigne during the build up phase, drawing the attention of Odriozola, encouraging Zielinksi to occupy the space left vacant by the Fiorentina fullback.
When Fiorentina realized that their preferred 4-2-4 pressing shape was creating more problems for themselves than Napoli, they shifted into a 4-4-2 mid-block during Napoli goal kicks or when Ospina received the ball back from teammates. The primary focus for Napoli was to play the ball up the left side to take advantage of the overload created when attacking a 4-4-2 mid-block. The overload becomes possible when Zielinski drops deeper into midfield from his #10 role to occupy Bonaventura. In this 4-4-2 mid-block, Bonaventura moved back into midfield from his previous role in the Fiorentina press as a forward. As mentioned, Odriozola attempted to mark and press Insigne, leaving Bonaventura with the responsibility of defending Zielinski and leading the press against Rui. Bonaventura was overworked several times in this game. He was often tasked with leading a press in the wider areas of the pitch while also screening inside passing options. Players often fail to handle this level of defensive responsibility because of it requires them to press perfectly while keeping the second attacker behind them in their cover shadow at all times. It is nearly impossible to do effectively.
There does not seem to be any defined roles in this Fiorentina side. With the exception of Vlahovic, every player is expected to play in different roles as the game asks them to. One such instance is the use of Callejon. On paper, he is a right sided winger. In the game, he would sit inside between Koulibali and Rui in the right half-space, often dropping between the defensive and midfield lines. Callejon is not a player who creates chances from midfield like Zielinksi or Çalhanoğlu. However, his movement is enough to create chances.
On the ball below is central defender Milenkovic. Callejon can be seen dropping between Zielinski and Insigne, while Odriozola runs forward. Insigne is caught defending two players. He was originally marking Odriozola, but is now moving inside to defend the dropping Callejon. Insigne has chosen the wrong player to defend because the target of this maneuver is Odriozola. Milenkovic can see that Insigne is running inside, leaving Odriozola to run wide into a one versus one against the Napoli fullback Rui, who is not pictured.
We can see below that Fiorentina move to a back three in possession. The fullback who is not attacking tucks in while the other goes forward. We can see the goals Fiorentina look to achieve more clearly. Keep one attacker wide, drawing the widest midfield defender from Napoli, while the ballsided forward drops deeper into the space that has been created by the widest midfielder moving to mark Fiorentina’s wide attacker. The positions and players don’t matter. If Insigne marks Odriozola it leaves Callejon free. If Insigne marks Callejon it leaves Odriozola free. Napoli struggled to defend against these patterns of play.
We’re going to take a look at a movement from Fiorentina that was used to get the ball from Quarta to Gonzalez. Quarta has two passing options: Biraghi and Duncan. Biraghi, the fullback, is the safest while Duncan is the most progressive, but risky because Duncan was closed down often by Fabian. Lozano was always keen to press Biraghi but not nearly as much as Fabian to Duncan.
Now that we have context for how Napoli press versus Fiorentina and their ball progression, we can better understand the movement. Once Biraghi receives the ball, Lozano presses. As Lozano presses, Gonzalez and Duncan switch positions. Duncan moves to add width while Gonzalez moves into midfield. In doing this, Di Lorenzo and Fabian followed them to prevent Biraghi from passing to them.
It is not clear who Biraghi is passing to because the movement between Duncan and Gonzalez is seamless. There is no sign that the defenders can use to determine when to press or when to back off. When this change in position happens, Biraghi can play his pass to Gonzalez, the target, who is in space due to Fabian and Di Lorenzo getting caught between man-marking and zonal marking. Those few seconds where a player enters a new zone and is now a different defender's responsibility is when Fiorentina look to play the riskier, inside passes. These passes are only possible when players off the ball are able to drag their markers out of position, creating space for teammates to move into.
Napoli continue their winning ways in Serie A against a Fiorentina side who are just as impressive but for different reasons. This truly was one of the most entertaining games from the Serie A so far this season. It is certainly one worth revisiting even if just to see the patterns and ideas for yourself. This is not like a traditional analysis produced by me. Instead, this should come across as an appreciation for what was shown to me and a sign that the Serie A remains one of the most exciting leagues to be watching, with Napoli and Fiorentina as the crown jewels for this season.
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___