With the spots for the Champions League increasing in competition, the Europa League represents a second chance for clubs right outside of the Top Four to gain a spot. While Napoli have already claimed their spot in the Champions League, Arsenal are still fighting for their place to be set in contention. While both clubs are aiming for the trophy, Napoli are aiming to solely win it while Arsenal are looking to win the trophy to get inside Top Four. Having not won league titles under their previous manager, Maurizio Sarri, Napoli have itched for a chance to win something major. The Europa League represents a chance of glory and fame. As such, with stakes raised at both ends, the match was poised to deliver. In this piece, we aim to show you through tactical analysis and statistics, the patterns and tactics of both teams
Arsenal lined up in a 3-4-2-1 while Napoli lined up in a 4-4-2. There were changes from both sides heading into the game. For Napoli, Dries Mertens was dropped for Allan. Napoli’s coach, Carlo Ancelotti, dropped David Ospina for Alex Meret. For Arsenal, there were a lot of changes. This shows the fact that Arsenal took this game into big consideration. A total of four changes were made. Bernard Leno was dropped for Petr Cech meanwhile the pair of Konstantinos Mavropanos and Shkodran Mustafi were replaced by Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Finally, Unai Emery replaced Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal’s high press and counterattacking
As seen from the formation line up, Arsenal lined up in a 3-4-2-1. In this formation, there is a great emphasis on utilizing the wings to attack. This as you can stretch the opposition with wingbacks, players who are different than left or right backs, who lie by the side of the pitch. This draws the players from their positions which allows the attackers to attack the space. Arsenal employed this tactic onto Napoli with a high-intensity. Their first step in accomplishing wing play was their high pressing. To accomplish the goal of a high press, Arsenal employed a peculiar tactic. They would allow Napoli to pass it around near their goal. This was as Napoli, in the build-up, employed a 3-4-3. As such, pressing with the front two attackers would not be beneficial as there would be a numerical superiority in favour of Napoli. As such, Lacazette and his fellow striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, held off in their pressing.
As soon as Napoli had passed their ball to the middle of the pitch, Arsenal’s pressing would converge. This is as Arsenal’s formation, 3-4-2-1, puts 5 players in the midfield. As such, in the central corridor, Arsenal retained numerical superiority. As such, it made sense for Arsenal to make their pressing intense. Moreover, Arsenal employed an asymmetrical pressing pattern meaning that a majority of the players are making runs, marking, and slowly moving to one side of the pitch. This allowed Arsenal to constrict Napoli’s buildup and as such allowed them to win the ball very high up the pitch.
As we can see from the picture, Arsenal, through their high press, have constricted the passage of play for Napoli. As such the only route that Napoli can take is switching the play or attempting a long ball. As such, the midfield from Arsenal could convert their high press into turnovers and as such attack Napoli.
After winning the ball, Arsenal’s main route for the attack was against Napoli’s right-hand side. In terms of defence, Vlad Chiricheș and Nikola Maksimović are not the strongest. As such, in any formation, one of the weakest spaces is the space between the fullback/wingback and the centre back. This is exactly what Arsenal were looking for. Majority of their attacks came bearing down Napoli’s right-hand side. Sead Kolasinac, Arsenal’s left back would be the first one to attack Napoli’sright wing space and right half space. With a fullback, from Arsenal, one of the strikers would drift near the full back. Moreover, this is where Ramsey’s qualities were used. He would drop near the fullback creating a triangle. As such, there would a 3v2 on the wings. With quick one-twos and short passes, the trio would get past the duo of Chiricheș and Maksimović with ease. As such, many times, Arsenal found themselves in attacking positions, positions where they should have scored.
Here the quick combination play between Aubameyang, Ramsey, and Kolasinac has resulted in getting the past duo fullback and centre back and has allowed the Kolasinac, the wingback from Arsenal, to attack the halfspace which could result in dangerous crosses. Moreover, look at how due to the presence of the striker, wingback, and central attacking midfielder, there is a 3v2. In this case, the 3v2 also gets past an additional Napoli midfielder, enhancing the attack. Additionally, notice how the second striker, Lacazette, also comes near Kolasinac, opening possibilities for low crosses and cutbacks.
This play was not limited to the right-hand side of Napoli. Whenever it did take place on the left-hand side of Napoli, a slight tweak was made to the approach. Instead of using short passes, the fullback would keep running, drawing the Napoli fullback. Ramsey would drop in the void left by the fullback. At that moment, the fullback, Maitland-Niles, would cutback onto Ramsey who would set it to one of the strikers or cutback to the central corridor.
This wing play was not limited to triangles, however. If the ball was won in a higher position and an opportunity to attack the right-hand side of Napoli was made available, it was exploited. Without waiting, both Lacazette and Aubameyang would both converge on that side. They were benefitted from Napoli’s set up as well. As said before, Napoli, in the buildup, had a formation of 3-4-3. As such any losses of possession would result in an exposed back three. With Lacazette and Aubameyang converging on one side, a structured back three would be fragmented. This situations resulted in dangerous 1v1s with Kalidou Koulibaly and would result in dangerous chances.
Here there was a quick loss of possession by Napoli resulted in Arsenal getting a through ball to one of the strikers. By both running diagonally, they could exchange one single pass that would cut straight through the diverging duo of centrebacks. As such, now, Aubameyang is level and can get ahead of the defender with ease. This was just one example of how the two strikers were always ready to exploit that right-hand side of Napoli. Moreover, now since Aubameyang is past the first two defenders, he will go head to head with the remaining defender: Koulibaly.
Napoli’s original attack fails to break Arsenal defence
Starting off, Napoli were sloppy in possession of the ball. Losing the ball in central areas and a lack of communication between simple passes gifted Arsenal various chances. This same trend of sloppiness was replicated in the final third. Arsenal’s high press was effective during the middle of Napoli’s half but after Napoli got past that high press, things would settle down. Arsenal would set themselves in a 5-3-2 and defend resolutely.
The problem came down to Napoli’s ineffective attack. Much like Arsenal, they prioritised attacking down the wings. With the pace and trickery of the likes of Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón, Napoli looked to disrupt the positioning of the fullbacks. However, this was not effective due to the fact that Arsenal had a five-man defence. As such even if spaces between the fullback and the centreback were found, the defence was not as unsettled when compared to Napoli.
Napoli change their attacking game plan
In an effort to disrupt the rigid formation, Napoli tried a new approach. They looked to build up and attack upon their left-hand side. This was a call to the approaches under Maurizio Sarri. With the spine of Faouzi Ghoulam, Piotr Zieliński, and Insigne, Napoli approached progressively down the left-hand side. As such, they did short and crisp passes which drew Arsenal to that side. Then they would look to either switch directly to the other side with a diagonal ball or they would pass to a central midfielder, one of Fabián Ruiz or Allan, who would direct to the other side. These methods were successful in moving the defence to and fro but it was ineffective in carving space inside the final third. This can be clearly seen in the statistics regarding the shots. Even though Napoli shot twenty times, they only had two shots on the target. This is indicative of a lack of space in the final third.
Moreover, this approach was largely ineffective due to another factor: Arkadiusz Milik. With the original formation, Insigne and Callejón stay near Milik which allows him space to shoot. However, in this approach, Milik was isolated in the middle. This isolation was intensified with the fact that due to the five-man defence, there was a 3v1 created in the middle. This made it very hard for Milik to get on any action. Out of the two shots on target, both were shot by wingers, Callejón and Insigne, reinforcing the fact that the Polish striker was nonexistent in terms of the game.
After this failed approach, Maksimović was brought off for Dries Mertens. This added a new approach to Napoli’s attack. This allowed for a new way to attack. Now, Insigne, Milik, and Callejón formed the trident of Napoli’s attack. Behind them was Mertens which allowed for some disturbance in the Arsenal’s defence. Moreover, the introduction of Mertens allowed for two forwards in the centre of the box. Hence, the trio became a quartet. Even yet, the shots were hard to come by. In the 60th minute, Insigne was taken off for Amin Younes. With a pair of fresh legs, Napoli came surging forth.
With new players, new tactics had to be formed. Now, with Mertens and Younes, the attack became much better. Younes acted as the creative cog behind the five-man defence. Moreover, with two forwards in Milik and Mertens, Napoli started to cause troubles. More and more, Younes and Ruiz were splitting apart the defence with through balls. These through balls were received by the diagonal runs of Mertens and Milik.
While these attacking actions were much better for Napoli it did not help as Arsenal brought on Iwobi and Mohamed Elneny, two substitutions that were made to introduce a freshness in defence and counterattack. With the substitution, Arsenal shifted to a 5-4-1, allowing even less space to the progressively frustrated Napoli. This formation switch allowed for a 3v3 on the wings which equalized any threat that Napoli had. Moreover, the likes of Awobi presented a counterattacking danger to Napoli of which they had to be wary of. As such, counterattacks from the likes of Iwobi lead to more fatigued legs. As the game went on, the space between the lines got deeper and deeper and Napoli become more and more frustrated.
Arsenal advanced to the semifinals with this victory against Napoli. Unai Emery and his men should be happy. They have weathered a very resilient Napoli and have come out on to the top. With a likely position in the Europa League final, Arsenal go onto next week with the spirit of optimism. They have two chances to make Champions League and they will be sure to capitalize on one of them. For Carlo Ancelotti’s men, however, there will be pangs of disappointment and frustration. With such a massively talented squad, Ancelotti’s tactics have let his team down. For the likes of Koulibaly, this should be a wake-up call. While Napoli will be in the Champions League next year, a failure to win anything by the Neapolitans will impact stars with the quality of Koulibaly. If Napoli are to outshine their Turin rivals, they must ride through the rough and become much better tactically and mentally.