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With Juventus essentially pencilled in as Serie A winners for yet another year, Napoli v Roma has become an audition for the right to challenge Juventus’ Serie A supremacy. With Napoli unbeaten at the San Paolo since Sarri’s arrival, it goes to show just how solid Luciano Spalletti’s gameplan was.




Their line-ups were the model of consistency last year, but with some criticisms as Sarri didn’t rotate as their fixtures congested after the new year. Gabbiadini came in for the injured Milik and it was obvious how much they missed the Polish striker’s overall game. In the offensive phase, Napoli would shift to a back three of Ghoulam, Koulibaly and Maksimovic, with Hysaj shifting up the pitch. Their formation would become a 3-1-3-3. Hamsik would offer 2 v 1 combinations with Insigne on the left, with Hysaj doing the same with Callejon on the right.


Spalletti seems to be finding his preferred XI, specifically in the backline. Nainggolan would start in an advanced role in a 4-2-3-1 with a rather defensive pivot behind him. Nainggolan could drop back to form a 4-3-3 if Roma were struggling with a numerical disadvantage, but Nainggolan in an advanced position was mainly to press Jorginho and disrupt Napoli’s build-up (more on this later). Roma would also shift to a back three when building from the back (Fazio, Manolas, Juan Jesus) and become a 3-2-2-3. In the defensive phase, they’d shift into a 4-4-1-1.

Roma nullify Napoli’s front press

Spalletti went toe to toe with Sarri in terms of numerical match-ups, with his back three being pressed by Napoli’s front three. It was a daring gameplan, but it worked. Florenzi was up the pitch acting as an offensive outlet on the right wing and Roma’s defense hardly noticed.

If Roma opted for a back four, as most teams do v Napoli’s forward press, their overall play would have suffered. With a back four, ball movement is often slow, but with a back three, it means you can have an extra man up the pitch to help you once you escape that press. It’s a risky gameplan because it places huge pressure on your centre backs and their ball playing ability. But the gratification comes later as you advance up the pitch.

But as illustrated in the video above, once you beat that initial press, you will find space in some really effective areas. With the FWDs pressing up, so do the MFs, but the DEF don’t. With this, lofted balls into the 40~ yard area will often find teammates in space and chances can be created from there.

For Roma, that defensive minded pivot was really important. Both DDR and Paredes are capable on the ball and offered a central outlet when Roma were playing out from the back. But they can also both drop in the defensive line if a centre back is struggling to find a receiver.

Gabbadini’s performance really disappointed me. Milik is an excellent presser and seemingly understands what is expected of him far more than Gabbiadini. Most of Napoli’s best pressing revealed itself when he was taken off and Callejon and later on, El Kaddouri moved centrally.

It’s definitely underrated how many chances Napoli get from turnovers via pressing their opponents from goal kicks. This took way a huge part of Napoli’s gameplan and they had rely heavily on other methods of creating chances.

Has Spalletti found his defensive gameplan?

I think yes!

This is not the first time Spalletti has shifted to a 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase and but he now seems fully committed to it. And with good reason, as it seems to have shored up Roma’s defensive worries, in my opinion.

There are a few reasons why this formation worked so well against Sarri’s men:

  • With two players on each wing, it meant Napoli would struggle to create 2 v 1s on the wing. This is a key principle of Napoli’s play. They create 2 v 1s on the wing and play low, diagonal balls back into the penalty box, and rarely actually cross.
  • With four in midfield, this helped against Napoli’s switches of play. With Jorginho pulling the strings from deep and Hamsik’s excellent passing and vision, Napoli frequently take advantages of isolation and numerical advantages by switch play. With four in midfield, it allows Roma to shift across the pitch and cover vacated space easily.
  • With Nainggolan just ahead of the midfield four, he went man for man with Jorginho. The Italian midfielder is perhaps one of the most underrated players in Serie A and is a key cog in Napoli’s build-up. With Nainggolan pressing him, Jorginho was unable to orchestrate as he usually does.

Napoli’s formation change

This perhaps a little bit too late as by the time this formation change had been successfully implemented, Roma were 2-1 up and there was a little less than half an hour left. They shifted to a 2-1-4-3.


With this formation change, Napoli were far more effective in wide areas. This is to be expected when they’re chasing the game, but Napoli upped the tempo to the point where the game almost becomes chaotic. But it is never chaotic for them, every run, every pass is highly calculated and all part of a sequence, even if you don’t see it at the time.

In the video above there are some examples about how Napoli going into hyper-attack mode created chances. There are a lot more penetrating runs from the midfield and wide players are far more effective with their 2 v 1s and subsequently, cut backs into the penalty area.

Roma’s defensive system held strong though and Nainggolan dropped fully into the midfield after the 68th minute. Roma were still able to counter attack, which is why them finding a defensive system that works is so important. This Roma are simply an outstanding counter attacking team, but counter attacking teams are only useful if they’re defensively sound. Post 2013/14, Garcia’s Roma struggled with this, but Spalletti is getting the balance of defensively secure and still counter attackingly potent.


This was a fun game, and it was essentially an audition for who was going to challenge Juventus for the Scudetto this season. This Roma seems far more capable of mounting a challenge than past Romas (don’t we say this every year). The Milik injury is going to hurt Napoli more than originally thought. I rate Gabbiadini’s goal scoring ability (I wrote about that in summer), but it goes without saying that Milik’s overall play and especially his pressing ability are far superior to Gabbiadini’s.

With Roma’s slow start and Napoli’s inconsistency, Juventus don’t look to have a real challenger just yet. But hey, this was still an entertaining game, there’s more happening in a league than just the title winner.

Billy Wilkinson fell in love with Arrigo Sacchi's Milan without even being alive when they were at the peak of their powers. Now he writes about and analyses all things Calcio. You can find him on Twitter @BilbertoSilva

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