Sarri’s table-topping Napoli met his former side Empoli and throughout the match Sarri’s influence/signature was evident on both sides. Right from the kick off routine to the way they invited and manipulated pressure before using it to their advantage. This made for a highly intriguing encounter with Napoli eventually making their superiority count with a 5-1 win, as they restored their 2-point lead over Juventus in the process.
Napoli’s pressing resistance
Throughout the game Napoli displayed an alarmingly good collective pressing resistance as they managed to constantly play out of tight situations and Empoli pressure with quick passing combinations. The ability to pass out of pressure was far more than just aesthetically pleasing as it also meant there was a lot of space Sarri’s men could exploit afterwards. There were 3 major facets behind this fantastic display; technical ability & composure to pass under pressure, good positioning to support the ball carrier and game intelligence to open spaces in Empoli’s press to play out of. They used several one touch, bounce and layoff passes even to players who were seemingly marked to provoke pressure and then exploit their superiority behind the line of pressure, a key principle of positional play.
When pressed into corners Napoli constantly created structures whereby the ball carrier would have a back pass option along with horizontal and diagonal passing options, which meant they often created diamond shapes around Empoli’s press.
Empoli often committed enough players to match Napoli in these areas but Napoli managed to beat the press constantly by creating a spare man with intelligent passing combinations. To distract Empoli’s players they would often play the ball to the blind side of an Empoli player, this would then entice the player to turn, press the ball and, crucially, leave their man. This would make the player on that blind side the free man and they would often make a run off the ball, receive a return pass unmarked and break out of Empoli’s press.
Furthermore they showed an inherent awareness of using their movement to exploit situational man-orientations and open passing lanes, Jorginho in particular was fantastic at this. With good movement and positional rotations they could both disrupt their opponents’ pressing approach and maintain good structures for support around the ball. All round it was a brilliant display of collective strategic game intelligence in possession to achieve certain objectives.
Napoli’s half-space switching/crossing
Against an Empoli side with quite a high ball-orientation and horizontal compactness Napoli knew they would likely have to use an alternative to their favoured approach where they break through the centre with quick combinations. Their answer seemed to be the half-space switch which was in-keeping with their method of using possession as a means of destabilising opponents.
Napoli would frequently build attacks on one side to draw Empoli players in and use their eagerness to press to their advantage by switching to the ‘free man’ in the ball-far half-space and crossing for diagonal runners to the far post. This approach led to theirequaliser and their 3rd goal just after half time, while another cross from the half space led to Callejon’s first goal. Their half space switching was more effective than a typical switch to the flank due to the half-space being closer, which meant the ball had a shorter distance to travel both to reach the half-space and the box afterwards. With a switch out to the wing the ball travels a further distance both out to the wing and then back into the box. Therefore the half-space switch gives defenders less time to organise themselves to defend the next action which is of course desirable for the offensive team.
Although the diagonal runs went largely in the same direction Empoli were shifting towards, the far post destination often meant these runs were made on the blind side of defenders making it impossible to focus both on the ball and the players to mark. This was particularly evident in Higuain’s goal as he runs off Camporese’s blind side who then cannot watch the ball and Higuain simultaneously, a perilous situation for a defender.
Napoli’s impressive title charge continues as they maintained a 2 point lead at the top whilst building an 8 point advantage over 3rd placed Fiorentina. With the team displaying impressive cohesion, front man Higuain in imperious scoring form, players like Jorginho and Allan enhancing their reputations with consistent performances and Sarri demonstrating his managerial ability Napoli are in a strong position to maintain their bid for a first Scudetto since 1990.
Empoli also continue to out-perform expectations and are only 4 points off a Europa league qualifying position and they look set to beat last season’s 15th placed finish. With their refreshingly attractive approach they have become several people’s 2nd team and despite being outclassed eventually by Napoli there were positives to take from the match such as the performance of the talented Leandro Paredes. Sitting in 9th position, one point behind 7th placed Sassuolo with a game in hand Empoli are enjoying a great second season in the Serie A.
Originally published on Outside of the Boot