With Juve on top, four points clear, and Roma one point ahead of Fiorentina, both sides were desperate for a win coming into this match. Neither team had a successful time in Europe in the week, but Napoli had experienced the more turbulent time in Serie A recently – conceding a late winner to Juve and managing only a draw at home to Milan after their previous 8 game winning streak. Sousa’s team were unbeaten in 6 league games, with wins over Inter and in Bergamo in their last two. Despite the form book, Viola’s main struggles this season have come against teams in the top 8 – something that Napoli looked to capitalise on with a win at the Artemio Franchi to re-affirm their title chase.
Fiorentina went with a 4-2-3-1 formation, although this wasn’t necessarily a ‘traditional’ one, with Alonso in particular pushing very high on the right and Valero dropping back deeper when necessary. Badelj once again partnered Vecino in the holding midfield role, with Matias Fernandez ahead of them. Tello started wide on the right, Valero left, with Kalinic up front. This, surprisingly, left no space for Bernardeschi or Ilicic to be included in the starting line-up. Napoli fielded a familiar eleven, in a 433, with Callejon and Insigne supporting Higuain. Ghoulam and Hysaj also provided width, and Jorginho partnered Allan and Hamsik centrally. Both teams play a similar style, that being a high defensive line and control of possession – but this was likely to be broken up somewhat by the counteractive high-pressing, and high-intensity, of both midfield and attacks. It made for an interesting game, and an exciting battle of Serie A’s most aesthetic teams this season.
Early action and Alonso the centre of attention
The match got off to a pretty frantic start, and it was Tello on the wide right who looked like he could be the threat to Napoli, getting an early cross in from the byline. However this was broken up by a short spell of possession for Napoli, and a willingness to exploit the same flank through Ghoulam getting forward and delivering crosses, albeit none of which threatening to provide a goalscoring opportunity. Fiorentina provided the first meaningful effort – a goal coming in the 6th minute. It came from a corner, after Callejon had headed a long pass behind. Valero delivered a great whipped cross into the near-post area, just on the edge of the six-yard box, where it was Marcos Alonso who jumped high and headed into the far corner. It was a nice header from the tall left-back, but the marking wasn’t fantastic. Hysaj jumped in-front of Alonso, but missed the ball, and the Spaniard rose high just behind after making a run in from the penalty spot. He ran towards two of his team-mates who also jumped for the header, which meant that Albiol was partially shielded off from attacking the ball to make an aerial challenge. No-one tracks Alonso specifically, so once Hysaj misses the cross, it means that the Fiorentina goalscorer can make the header with the protection of his two team-mates.
The response from Napoli was instant, although it came through a mistake by the man who had just scored seconds before. The away side did their classic kick-off routine of playing it long down the right-hand side for Callejon and Hysaj to push up and chase, however it fell just inside the edge of the penalty area where Alonso tried to clear it. He inexplicably goes to do so with the outside of his left foot, and slices it straight to Higuain. Tatarusanu moves over to the left-hand side of his area, behind the line of the ball in-case Alonso leaves/misses it, which means that Higuain has an open goal to shoot at when he receives the sliced clearance by Alonso just outside the area. It was a bizarre goal, one that goes down to an individual mistake by the left-back, and a somewhat unfortunate series of events for the goalkeeper who could do nothing to prevent it. Other than somehow managing to kick it in his own net, it was probably the worst thing Alonso could have done in the situation. His apparent panic may have been caused by the sense of Hysaj closing him down quickly, although there was still a reasonable distance between the two. The goal gave Higuain his first in 5 matches, left the game back at square one, and went some way to setting the tone for a hectic remaining 85 minutes.
The tempo of the game was fast, but congested and scrappy from the start, continuing so after the two goals. Both sides gave the ball away a fair amount, but this was forced by the high-pressing and large amount of space covered by central players. We’ve seen both these sides playing high defensive lines, up to the half-way line, a lot this season, and this meant it was a difficult transition from defence to attack after a turnover of the ball. Neither side ‘won the battle’ of the midfield, and the frantic nature of the game forced mistakes in possession from both teams. The natural alleviant to this was to try and attack down the wings, and spread the play when going forward. Both teams tried this – notably at the start through Ghoulam, and also Hysaj and Alonso on the overlap. Alonso was the primary provider of width, playing very high-up the pitch a lot of the time – effectively as a winger – putting in crosses. Both teams found it more difficult than usual to get the ball back into the middle of the pitch to their ball playing midfielder and keep the moves flowing. Jorginho accumulated over 100 passes, and Vecino was in the 90’s, but their influence on the tempo of the game was limited and they also became embroiled in a scrappy midfield at times, as opposed to their natural link-up game. It was a strange game, in which we saw the highest number of passes for a Serie A match this season, mainly due to the lack of time both sides had to relax on the ball, but both with the persistence to try and play their usual passing game where they could.
On multiple occasions we saw the importance, when going forward, of the attacking team getting men in behind the midfield line of the opposition. This meant that, particularly if the cross came from wide, attacking men could break into the penalty area with momentum and look to keep the defence on the back-foot in a 3-on-4 or 4-on-4 situation. These opportunities would usually come either from winning the ball high up the pitch, or through a counter attack. As demonstrated in a pic below, the advantage of having Callejon tracking back to stop Alonso from getting a ball into the box is advantageous on several levels. Firstly it obviously stops the delivery and reduces the threat of Kalinic rushing in to try and score with his head. Secondly, it stops the ball being played in first-time, which means that the momentum of the attack is lost – thus letting Napoli’s second wave (midfielders Hamsik, Allan, Jorginho, Insigne) get back to interfere and break it up if necessary. Fiorentina then have to go backwards or attempt a risky pass. To get Alonso away earlier and ensure a cross into the box, Viola needed to switch the ball to him over from the middle quickly. Vecino/Badelj were often the men to do this, sometimes rejecting the outball and sometimes playing it – a good example in the 19th minute, when Badelj whipped it out wide and then Alonso crossed it into Kalinic, whose touch unfortunately let him down in the box. 10 minutes later, another quick pass upfield and a great flick round the corner from Valero meant that Alonso could get free down the left again to produce an early cross, although this time straight into Reina’s hands. It was a lack of these quick switches of play, from both sides, that also made it more congested, tight and technical in midfield. The occasions when either side look to stretch the play or break out of their short passing rhythm, they often look dangerous – proven seconds later, when Hamsik played a long ball along the floor to Insigne down the left wing, which allowed him to run into the box , although he cut inside and the momentum was lost.
The best chance for the home side to regain the lead came in the 32nd minute, through Kalinic. It came from a misplaced pass by Koulibaly that was hit straight at Matias on the halfway-line, and fell to Tello. He was able to slot a perfect ball to Kalinic, putting him one-on-one with Reina, but only managed to thunder the crossbar with his shot. The mistake lies with Koulibaly giving the ball away, but this danger is always there when you play such a high defense. Reina appeared to go down incredibly early on the shot, but Kalinic really should have found the net to give the hosts the lead. However, Napoli weren’t the only ones taking risks – Fiorentina pushed men up into the opposition half when they had control of the ball on the halfway-line also. Two or three men elected to stay just inside their half, with Badelj and/or Vecino free to move up and look for openings. Roncaglia is an overlooked importance in this shape, because he doesn’t usually go forward with attacks, and can shift it into was is virtually a 3 man defence with Astori and Rodriguez when necessary. However, he is there on the right to link up with the likes of Tello and Fernandez at times as well. The next big opportunity for the home side came through Tello. Alonso put in a scuffed cross from the left, which was poorly cleared by Albiol, and Kalinic battled to win the loose ball from Koulibaly. He then passed it out to Tello, who cut in from the right and bent a shot against the underside of the bar. Napoli were perhaps a bit slow to react, once Kalinic had emerged with the ball, but Tello can count himself desperately unlucky not to put his side infront going into the half-time break. Hamsik had a chance himself, after great holdup and turn by Higuain – putting a lovely chipped ball over the top to the fast-approaching Slovak, but his header was straight at the keeper.
High-pressing and intensity continued
Despite the slightly frantic and scrappy nature at times, it was an entertaining match, and it was interspersed with periods of good control, particularly by Fiorentina. Napoli had their moments in possession too, but in general found it slightly more difficult to play through the middle of the pitch. The home side started the second half on the front foot, and kept the ball moving well, eventually winning a free-kick that was whipped in by Matias and header over by Kalinic. They kept the ball pretty much under their control for almost four minutes, through utilising their two centre-backs pushing up on the halfway-line as a passing option and by having the likes of Alonso and Valero immediately chase down the ball when it bounced – so that Napoli couldn’t bring it under control. On around 50 minutes, Viola had a nice period of possession, which demonstrated what they had been so good at this season. Despite every man on the ball being hassled, their one and two-touch passing was so good at this point that they were able to shield and keep the ball from the opposition, at the same time as working it up the pitch. When it was broken up by Allan, Valero straight away went and nicked it back off him. The balance of patience, technical ability and spatial awareness from the Fiorentina players was a really good opening to the second half for them. After this, Napoli had their first spell on the ball, and their first attack. Hamsik initiated it with a quick switch of play to Hysaj on the right, but as we saw Callejon do on occasions, Valero was back to cover the right-back area and prevent an early ball coming in.
examples of viola and napoli high pressure:
Highest Fiorentina tacklers – Vecino, Valero, Roncaglia – mostly made on/over halfway line due to compact nature of the game and high defence/high-pressure :
Napoli had a great chance to go ahead, in the 57th minute, after Rodriguez played a questionable ball out form defence along the ground straight to Koulibaly. Hamsik passed to Callejon, who brought the ball down superbly in his stride, cut back to the outside of Astori and ran through at goal. His shot was saved low down to his right by the Tatarusanu, who then got back up and made a spectacular save from Higuain’s rebound. It was a fantastic chance for the away side to snatch a lead, but a world-class double-save from Tatarusanu that denied them. The game became slightly more open for a time, and this seemed to suit Napoli, with Higuain breaking onto a long ball and slipping a pass down the side to Callejon, but he fired wide. The fast-flowing periods definitely helped Napoli, and they appeared more comfortable trying to get their three front-men running at Fiorentina’s defence, as opposed to the slower passive build-up (as you would expect). That little chipped ball over the top for a striker to run on to is often their final ball – usually from Hamsik or Insigne. Even Reina was useful in this, by coming way off his line quickly, keeping the momentum and tempo going when necessary, not letting Sousa’s men settle. Fiorentina did drop into a nice shape at times when defending, and this was underpinned by the work ethic of Vecino, Badelj and Valero to stick to the combined three ahead of their defenders and act as a compact ‘2nd line’ of protection. Anyone else coming back can then ‘interfere’ or wait for a counter opportunity – e.g Matias/Kalinic. Napoli themselves did pretty well in terms of containing Fiorentina, and Koulibaly in particular defended well against Tello in general – making a few very good tackles to prevent him penetrating too far down the right.
Substitutions came around the 65 minute mark, with Allan going off (potentially injured) and David Lopez coming on, as well as Bernardeschi replacing Matias Fernandez. Kalinic held the ball up well at times and came deep, with Bernardeschi having the space to then move forward ahead of him centrally. Then Bernardeschi would sometimes fall deep to search for the ball. The potential danger could then come from him moving forward into the hole between the lines, along with Kalinic (plus Valero at times, with his mobility) to try and engineer a way through. However, this never really produced a clear chance on goal, like it has done quite a few times this season. Both teams, impressively, continued pressing the opposition and hassling in possession, often forcing defenders to kick long. Mertens was introduced in place of Callejon, and straight away gave that same energy in midfield and further forward, also having an impact down the right where he whipped in a cross that needed to be acrobatically cleared. Fiorentina also had a chance coming from the right via Tello, but he decided to cut-in instead of whip a first-time cross into the box where Bernardeschi, Valero and Kalinic were lurking. He stepped inside, which allowed Napoli’s 2nd wave of midfielders to get back and break it up by smashing the ball into Insigne’s face. Napoli were also ensuring that the wide areas were well-guarded, often doubling or tripling-up on Alonso. The times where he was able to squeeze in a cross, Koulibaly was there to make a good interception – commanding his area like he has done on multiple occasions this season.
In the final stages, Sarri made an interesting sub – bringing on Gabbiadini for Higuain (who was not pleased). However it was the two subs that linked up well to present a great chance for Insigne to win the game in injury time. Mertens played a pass through to Gabbiadini in the middle, who turned and fed Insigne on the overlap, but the winger fired at Tatarusanu from an angle and the chance was lost. Gabbiadini does offer a different threat for Napoli, where he can play almost as a false nine and link up the play, rather than operate on the shoulder of the defender. It would be nice to see him play with Higuain, but this appears not to be a preferred approach by Sarri. The game ended with the points shared, in an exciting game and an interesting clash of styles – one in which both sides would have desperately wanted more out of the result. Both managers can take away positives – notably the energy and pressing they sustained throughout the 90 minutes. Defensively, they were pretty solid too. The chase for a Champions League place remains for Fiorentina, and Napoli lose ground on Juve.
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Fiorentina 1-1 Napoli
(Alonso 6′; Higuain 7′)