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Zielinski, or Sarri's Tactical Trick

Last Saturday Night against Palermo, Napoli did something that's been uncommon under Maurizio Sarri—it rotated. Christian Maggio started at right back, giving Elseid Hysaj a much-needed rest after he played over the international break. Perhaps more importantly, however, Sarri gave Piotr Zielinksi his first start in an Azzurri jersey. Several commentators noted that the switch seemed to signal that Napoli was planning on an even more attacking mindset than usual. After all, Zielinski is more attack-minded than the bulldog Allan he replaced in the box-to-box midfield role. While Napoli did attack from the first whistle, the tactical change wasn't quite what the commentators predicted. Instead of having him bomb forward more than usual, Sarri used Zielinski's vision and patience to free up Jorginho in the center.

In most Napoli matches the midfield three operate in fairly delineated roles. Marek Hamsik is free to roam, drifting out wide when Insigne or Mertens cut in, driving into the box to receive a cross when they stay wide, or hovering at the edge of the eighteen yard box in anticipation of a cutback. When he gets the ball deeper, he looks to play aggressive balls forward—especially if there's a possibility of a counter-attack. On the other side, Allan mostly makes runs between Callejón and whoever is at striker. When he gets it in a wide position, he's usually near the top right corner of the eighteen, and looks to drive towards the byline or lay it off to Callejón cutting inside or Hysaj for the cross. When there's a turnover after he's made a run beyond the strikers, he's expected to break up the counter-attack at the source and then drop back into position.

Rough Outline of the Line-Up with Allan in it

In between the two, Jorginho acts as a metronome. Besides the occasional ball into the striker's feet, most of his passes are short lay-offs that lack verticality. His job is to circulate and reset play, keeping possession while drawing the defense up the field. As a release valve, he rarely wanders too far towards the opponent's net.

Though it was subtle, all of this slightly changed on Saturday. Zielinski started a little farther forward than Allan, yet found himself in the opposing box less. Jorginho, meanwhile, tended to stay ever so slightly behind Zielinski at the start of build-ups, only to drift ahead of him to open space, challenge for a header, or even make a run. A prime example of this came just before the six-minute mark. A wayward Maggio cross was chased down by Insigne, who passed it out to Faouzi Ghoulam to reset the play. As Ghoulam received the ball, Jorginho dropped back in preparation to receive a lay-off, had Faouzi needed it. Zielinski meanwhile, was standing directly horizontal from Ghoulam, offering another short pass and completing a diamond shape with Hamsik ahead of them. Ghoulam returned to the ball to Insigne out wide, who immediately cut inward, drawing several defenders. As he did so, Jorginho made a run to the top of the box, with Zielinski floating forward to occupy the space diagonally behind Jorginho. This allowed him to act as the release should Jorginho need it, while also giving him the opportunity to break up a counter if Jorginho was dispossessed. This would usually be Jorginho's position, and on Callejón's second goal the positions are reversed, with Zielinski receiving the ball at the top of the box instead. Zielinski offers greater fluidity between two of the midfield positions, countering the main way teams attempted to slow Napoli's attack last year.

Rough Outline of the Line-up with Zielinski in it

For the most part, teams that had success against Napoli would mark out Jorginho, disrupting the heart of the build-up and throwing off the tempo of the attack. In the loss to Roma, he had 79 touches, or about .88 per minute (all statistics from Whoscored.com). When they lost to Udinese, he had 87 touches before being subbed off in the 73rd minute. Allan didn't pick up the slack, registering 49 touches in 78 minutes against Roma and 74 in the full 90 against Udinese. For context, in the 6-0 drubbing of Bologna, Jorginho had 118 touches and Allan had 83. In the 2-1 victory over Atalanta, Jorginho had 120 and Allan 67. On Saturday, Jorginho had 142 touches and Zielinski had 65 in 72 minutes. In the same time frame last week, Allan had 42.

Zielinski was neither a like-for-like replacement for Allan nor did he play a more directly attacking role. Instead, he acted as sort of a vice-Jorginho, allowing more fluidity—if he drifted forward, Jorginho stayed back. If Jorginho went on a run, Zielinski rotated into his old position. While unimportant against a lackluster Palermo side, this freedom could be vital against opponents willing to man-mark Napoli's regista. If Jorginho's metronomic passing is the heartbeat of Napoli's attack, Zielinski acted as a pacemaker, smoothing out any disruptions that would otherwise jeopardize the organism.

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