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How Napoli can come back and beat Real Madrid

Napoli have a tough road ahead in the Champions League, but it’s not insurmountable.

Real Madrid CF v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Napoli are playing Real Madrid at home in the Stadio San Paolo in the second leg of the last 16 fixture trailing 3-1 on aggregate. That’s not a great position to find themselves in coming into this match, but it’s far from hopeless. Using the lessons we learned from the first leg, let’s look at what Napoli can do to turn this tie around.

Thanks to CH for bringing this story to us in such detail. - Conor

In defense

In the Bernabeu, Napoli adopted a very unusual strategy in the defensive phase, playing a very passive zonal defense. In the Serie A, Napoli often holds a high press against most opponents. However, possibly fearing the firepower of Real Madrid, Napoli were very quick to transit to a deep defensive formation without applying a high-pressure, high press. Napoli's defensive formation was a 4-5-1, with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon dropping back to the midfield. Dries Mertens also fell to the midfield frequently, making the defensive shape extremely compact and narrow:

The aim was to suffocate the space between the line in the middle. However, this strategy did not work in the first leg, and Napoli should not repeat it in the return fixture. Real Madrid is the best team in Europe in utilizing the width in their offensive phase, and they used their width to stretch Napoli brilliantly in the first round:

Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo often positioned very close to the sideline. They could play like that because of the excellent passing ranges of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, with players like Sergio Ramos and Casemiro also able to consistently deliver the ball to the flanks consistently.

The passive nature of Napoli's tight defense allowed Real Madrid to play the ball very comfortably in the Napoli's defensive third. With their excellent technique and passing ranges, Madrid's players were able to pass the ball between the two flanks very efficiently. These passes placed a lot of pressure on the Napoli's defense because it stretched Napoli's players all over the pitch, allowing Madrid's players to find the space on the flanks to send dangerous crosses into Napoli's box. It is this reason they conceded the first goal:

In the return fixture against Real Madrid, Napoli cannot play such passive and narrow zonal defense. First of all, Madrid's players are just too good offensively. Allowing them to carry possession comfortably deep into the offensive third is way too risky. Secondly, with two goals down, Napoli needs to dominate possession. Time is precious. But how should Napoli play defensively? There is a dilemma. To close down Ronaldo, Marcelo, or James (or worse, Gareth Bale) quickly, Napoli has to use a more aggressive man-marking scheme. Playing such a strategy means that Napoli's defenders have to stay close to the player they mark. With Madrid's players positioning so close to the flanks, the whole of Napoli's defensive unit will be stretched very wide, leaving a lot of space for Madrid to penetrate in the middle. To man-mark the players on the flanks without conceding the space in the middle means that either the player on the ball opposing flank is completely free or Napoli's defender has to defend one on one against Ronaldo and company on the ball playing side.

Both of these scenarios are bad options. The only way for Napoli to prevent these situations to develop is to stop Real Madrid from entering the offensive phase. Therefore a high and aggressive press is necessary. Napoli needs to play with a high defensive line and the offside traps. One thing Napoli did very well in the Bernabeu is the usage of the offside traps:

Real Madrid was able to break the offside trap only once. A successful offside scheme allows them to maintain the high defensive line, and therefore, a high-pressure environment. It allows them to press aggressively against Madrid's ball handlers and to prevent them from playing the ball to the flanks. Secondly, the offside trap means that Napoli does not have to man-mark Madrid's attackers constantly and will allow them to maintain defensive integrity in the middle.

In attack

Napoli committed two major mistakes in the offensive phases in the first leg.

The initial passes

Maurizio Sarri had commented in the post-game press conference that the problem of Napoli in the offensive phase was a technical one: they did not handle the initial pass correctly. Therefore, they could not build up pressure against the opponent.

Here are some of the mistakes they committed in their initial passes in their half:

Sarri's tactic focuses on the build-up starting from the back. The initial passes with the four defenders or Reina are critical because they are used to invite pressures from the opponent. Here, these passes are not aimless passes between the players but the lure to attract opposing players. Once a player(s) is lured to attack the ball, then space and passing lanes are often opened up.

In the first fixture, Napoli played too many wrong passes in their half. It is, of course, a technical problem when one cannot even complete a pass. There are two possibilities:

  1. The Napoli's players' technical level is not high enough to play their style against elite opponents in Europe.
  2. Napoli committed these mistakes because they were not experienced enough to handle such fixture in an international highlighted game.

The second possibility is more likely than the first because Napoli's players committed these mistakes even though Real Madrid did not apply very intense pressure on them. They were often too slow and allowed Madrid's players to close them down or misplaced their passes even though there was no passing lane.

On Napoli will need to minimize these mistakes in the second leg. There is no remedy if the players are not courage enough because it affects even the simplest passes. Napoli needs to find the confidence in the second round. But tactically, there may be ways to alleviate the pressure on the Napoli's defenders in making these initial passes.

In the middle of this season, Sarri replaced Jorginho with Amadou Diawara in the starting lineup. Compared to Jorginho, Diawara is more physical. Although his passing range is not as impressive as Jorginho's, it is still exquisite. Using Diawara as a playmaker allows Napoli to have a better balance between the offense and the defense. With Diawara, Napoli also changes their plays in the initial phase of the offensive phase to offset the absence of Jorginho. Jorginho is a very technically gifted player who has excellent passing ranges and ball handling skills. He must be closed down quickly if he has the ball. Opponents often have to tackle him even when he receives the ball deep in his half. Napoli often takes advantage of such situation: If Jorginho is not closed down, he can always find a way to pass through the lines. If he is closed down quickly, a passing lane will open, or his teammate can carry the ball forward.

Napoli made adjustments to accommodate the loss of Jorginho's "lure" effect. On average, Jorginho receives and places roughly 30 more passes per game than Diawara. Instead of primarily passing through the playmaker, Napoli players exchange more passes between each other. With Diawara, Napoli is more unpredictable than with Jorginho during the build-up, because the passing patterns are more complex. However it is also easier for them to make a mistake. To develop easier initial passes, Napoli may want to consider playing Jorginho instead of Diawara in the second leg against Real Madrid. Using Jorginho will simplify the build-up in the initial offensive phase. Plays will develop around Jorginho. Although the initial passes are more predictable under Jorginho, they are also simpler, and can potentially alleviate the pressure of the Napoli's defenders in the build-up.

The final passes

Napoli did not lack scoring opportunities in the first leg. The problem was that they misplaced too many final passes:

Napoli cannot make these mistakes at this level of competition. In many of these cases, Napoli's players were not even pressured. Again, these errors indicate that Napoli players were not experienced enough to handle the pressure in the first leg.

But there are also tactical aspects that Napoli can improve in the next game to increase the effectiveness of their final presses. First, without Arkadiusz Milik, they did not have a real target for the crosses:

Secondly, when Insigne operates on the left flank, he likes to cut inside and send a diagonal cross into the box. These crosses often aim to Jose Callejon, who is usually running at the space between the left center back and left full back. However, against Madrid's defense, these crosses were ineffective:

There were two problems with this tactic. The lack of a target man like Milik allowed Ramos and Raphael Varane to be relatively unoccupied, so they could prepare to block or intercept these diagonal passes very easily. Secondly, there was a lack of movement from the Napoli's players to surprise Madrid's defense. Mertens did not pose any physical threat against Madrid's center backs. To create dangerous chances, he needed to be constantly moving in and out of the defensive line of Madrid. Alternatively, there is a lack of penetration runs by Napoli's midfielders into the box. The lack of movement in the final third allowed Ramos and Varane to read Napoli's attempts to create chances relatively straightforward.

In the second leg, should Sarri start Milik instead of Mertens? On the one hand, Milik can provide a target man for the Napoli's final passes. He can also occupy Varane and Ramos, preventing them from anticipating those diagonal crosses from Insigne so quickly. On the other hand, Mertens has been in great form while Milik hasn’t yet been in his best form since returning from injury (which is kind of a miracle that he recovered so quickly from an ACL tear). Moreover, Mertens is excellent in chasing down opponents, which is something that Napoli has to do to turn around this tie, meaning it might be too risky not to play Mertens. But maybe Sarri can sacrifice Callejon and play both Mertens and Milik.

Napoli's midfielders also need to penetrate into the box a lot more often than in the first leg. These penetration runs can apply a lot of pressure against Madrid's defense. The incoming midfielder can become the target man of the final pass, or they can confuse or occupy Ramos and Varane. Allan or Piotr Zelinski usually starts in this position, however Marko Rog has played well against Juventus and Roma in the last two games.

Napoli's exceptional positional play

Napoli can take at least one positive from the game in Bernabeu: Real Madrid cannot stop the positional plays of Napoli once they can successfully transition into the offensive phase:

Sarri's use of passes is a form of art. As discussed before, he first installed Jorginho as a "lure" to open opponent's first line of defense. Under him, Napoli also plays a lot of the opposite runs between two players to open up passing lane:

Notice how Mertens dropped to the midfield to receive a pass, dragging Varane with him. Insigne then ran into the space that was open that he could receive a through pass from Marek Hamsik.

But the most underappreciated aspect of Napoli's passing game is the usage of short and quick passes between two players as delusion. These are not aimless passes, instead they are used to attract the attention of the opponents so as to open a passing lane to another player. Most of the time, while the movement of these quick passes draws the attention of the opponent's players, the other Napoli's players often has a small temporal and spatial window that they can take advantage of:

Notice how the passes between Kalidou Koulibaly, Raúl Albiol, and Hamsik attracted the attention from Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro so that space is open for Mertens to operate.

Real Madrid had not had any ideas how to stop the progression of the ball by Napoli's player once they fully transition in the offensive phase. If Napoli can find a way to correct their mistakes in the initial and final passes, they can pose a serious threat to Real Madrid in Stadio San Paolo.


Napoli needs to play a perfect game to turn this tie around. They have to be a lot more aggressive in the defensive phase to stop Real Madrid from transitioning into the offensive phase. They will have to play the offside traps successful enough to play the high defensive line so that they can apply intense pressure on Real Madrid. Offensively, they will have to stay calmer to place the initial passes so that they can build pressure. Moreover, they have to make the adjustments so that their final passes can be more efficient.

Do they have a chance? They have, but it is a slim one. They will have to maintain a very high level of intensity for the whole 90 minutes to have a chance to qualify. But under Sarri, they have yet to show that they can maintain a high level of football against stronger opponents like Juventus and Roma. Whether they can maintain high enough intensity over 90 minutes will be the key for them to turn this tie around.