Coming into this match, both sides would have been very happy with their start to the season. Napoli remained top after Inter’s draw in Bergamo, and Sassuolo had crept up to sixth – ahead of Empoli, Milan and Lazio. The two teams met on the opening day of the season, where Sarri lost (his first game in charge) 2-1 due to a late Sansone header. Sassuolo were fielding a somewhat different attack this time around, albeit a familiar 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, starting with Falcinelli, Politano and Sansone (Berardi missing through suspension). Napoli brought back Ghoulam at left-back and Insigne came in for Mertens. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Chiriches started ahead of Koulibaly in the heart of defence.
Left wingers – Sansone vs Insigne
The main area of threat for both teams during the majority of the match was the left flank. The two wingers on this side were probably the two best players for each team. Immediately we saw the threat of the Sassuolo’s Sansone, who capitalised on Hysaj’s mistake to win a penalty in the second minute of the game. It was really a series of three errors from Napoli’s right back, each one leading to an increase in significance of the next, which offered Sassuolo a route to goal. First of all, Hysaj hit a lazy pass/clearance straight to an opponent about 20 yards away. Then the ball was played back over his head, as he had perhaps come too far infield out of position to leave the opposition winger slightly open. Hysaj managed to get something on the ball, but as he went to clear it, he missed his kick and allowed Sansone to gather and run into the box. Albiol then puts in a clumsy ‘tackle’, bringing down Sansone as he shifts the ball to the right, and concedes the penalty. It was all a bit unnecessary, as Albiol gets square on to the attacker and sticks a leg out, even as Allan is coming in to alleviate any danger – Sansone still would have had a lot to do to score. Regardless, the penalty was dispatched by Falcinelli in the absence of Berardi, and the visitors took the early lead.
Straight away after this, Duncan played a long pass through down the left, and Sansone had another chance to run forward with the ball. This time Allan got back to interfere earlier, and although the Sassuolo winger shrugged him off once, the combination of Allan and Albiol managed to contain Sansone at the byline and his subsequent cross was cleared for a corner. At first, its easy to assume that Hysaj is the one being helped out by Allan again, but the Napoli right back is actually caught miles up the pitch, and its Albiol that comes across to cover, with Chiriches the one making the eventual clearance in the middle.
From this point, it was Insigne who had the majority of the chances on the left, using his pace and control to try to open up the opposition defence. When he picks up the ball out wide, he has a few options. Napoli use the ball over the top from the inside-left position to their advantage a lot, usually with Callejon, Higuain or Hamsik running ahead. That’s one option – to pick out a run of an attacker and try and play a ball over the top. Napoli are also great on the counter, and they can build the attack by playing short passes until they are able to slip Higuain through – this is another option for Insigne – to lay the ball off and keep possession going forward for his team. Alternatively, he can run at the defence, cutting inside or out, to try and get into the penalty area himself. This is what makes it really hard for teams to defend against Napoli, particularly on the counter-attack, because they get their attacking players moving around the ball really quickly and effectively. The man in possession, in this case Insigne, has plenty of options as he drives towards goal. His link-up play, particularly with Higuain and Hamsik, has been extremely effective and was a notable difference between the two teams. Their performance today was made even more impressive by the fact that one of the key features in Sassuolo’s game is their ability to get men back behind the ball and make recovery runs. Although reasonably good at counter-attacking themselves, Sassuolo don’t have the same level of link up play. Sansone didn’t have the fluid movement around him that could either drag defenders around or provide options for quick passes to cut through the defence.
Insigne’s role gives him the freedom to drift around and come in from the left, encouraging him to engage with his team-mates. His passes through, whilst travelling at speed, are also generally pretty accurate. When on the ball, it makes it difficult to predict his next move, and when off the ball he is hard to track. All within a 5 minute period between 8 and 12 minutes, he played a chipped ball through to Higuain; he ran into Sassuolo’s half and slipped a ball through to the striker; and he cut inside to shoot at the keeper – all in separate moves. Insigne was also involved in the first Napoli goal, in the 19th minute. Goulham was forward on the left, passed the ball short to Hamsik who played a nice ball through to Insigne. He managed to stay onside and keep the ball in at the byline, before placing an inch-perfect cross onto the onrushing Callejon’s head. Peluso and Acerbi didn’t quite hold the line as Insigne picked up the ball, and when he crossed it in Callejon was there to meet it. The Spaniard’s run was fantastic, as he came from the right, ran in between the two centre-backs to meet the ball in the air at just the right point in the six-yard box.
After the Napoli equaliser, Sassuolo showed that they could offer some pressure in return, initially coming from the right with a cross from the byline from Vrsaljko which just evades a Sassuolo head, and then a similar ball from the other side. Duncan followed up with a wild shot high and wide. Sanasone then had a shot from distance, comfortably dealt with by Reina, after Hamsik lost the ball in midfield. Napoli then demonstrated their threat once again, with Higuain chipping a nice ball through to Callejon who was 1-on-1 with Consigli, but just offside. It highlighted the adaptability of Sarri’s front men – with Higuain this time playing the familiar ball from deep, to Callejon running through the middle instead. Sassuolo then had a chance of their own as Peluso put in another decent cross, but Falcinelli couldn’t get the right contact on the header when he should have done a bit better. They were shortly after nearly gifted another chance on goal, as a long ball made its way over two Napoli heads to the onrushing Politano down the right. The Sassuolo man cut inside and fizzed a shot in that Reina managed to push wide.
Despite their dominance in the first half, Napoli were making a few mistakes, sometimes due to the pressure that Sassuolo were keen to put them under in their own half. Two sufferers of this were Chiriches and Jorginho. Allan had a good game holding in central midfield, working extremely hard and also demonstrating the technical side to his game once again. Despite Jorginho being the ball-magnet he usually is, and having nearly twice as many touches as anyone else on the pitch in the first half, he looked a bit out of sorts. In comparison, Magnanelli had a pretty good game in front of the back four for Sassuolo, putting more than his fair share of effort in making blocks tackles and interceptions.
Higuain and his movement
A big feature of Napoli’s attacking play this season, and Higuian’s goals, has been the intelligent movement of the Argentinian striker. As a forward at a top club, you’d expect him to be good off the ball, but he is a great example of how to make the passes and chances created by his team-mates into genuine goalscoring opportunities. Not only this, but he can capitalise on defences not engaging him by hitting a mean strike from mid-to-long distance. Early on, around 9 minutes in, Napoli get a counter attack through Insigne, with only Higuain ahead of him and four defenders. Higuain stayed just on the blind-side of Acerbi, fakes to run in and then backs off – allowing him just enough space to receive the ball and control it, eventually getting a shot off (although off target on this occasion). A few minutes after, he runs down the side of Acerbi again, and is well picked out by Jorginho from deep, although Acerbi defends it well and gets alongside him. It was an interesting battle between him and Higuain, two in-form players, throughout the game. We saw later in the first half that Acerbi was still keen to stop Higuain’s trademark run down the side of the centre-back as the ball is slipped through to him, with the Sassuolo man running out to engage Higuain but not committing himself – instead tracking back with him into the penalty area and not letting him come inside or get a shot away this time. We’ve seen this type of run pay off already this season for Higuain, notably against Sampdoria from Allan’s pass, and against Udinese from Jorginho’s through ball.
On 41 minutes came Napoli’s second goal, one that was easy enough on first glance, but was great forward play from Hamsik and Higuain. The cross was spot-on, but Higuain’s darting run was classic. He starts between the lines of the Sassuolo midfield and the defence, then makes his way into the box, keeping distance between himself and Ariaudo. He has a quick check to see how close Acerbi is, and then picks the most dangerous area to run into and darts between the two centre-backs. Higuain knows that Ariaudo will cover him off at the front post, so he feints to run to the near-post and then ducks back into the gap at the perfect time to meet Hamsik’s cross between the centre-backs. He’s always staying blind-side of the defender until its too late for them to do anything about his run, or getting them off balance – as happened with Ariaudo.
Another great example of Higuain’s danger in and around the box came on 60 minutes, when Callejon managed to find him with a low cross into the box. Although he failed to score on this occasion, it was a good opportunity that was carved out by Higuain drifting between the lines as he arrived in the box. Admittedly, the defending could have been better, but Higuain found a perfect pocket of space where none of the defenders accepted responsibility to mark him. There’s always the danger of him running to the near-post, as well as the cut-back. Magnanelli should have got right-side of him, but Acerbi’s fear of Higuain’s poaching around him made the Sassuolo defender rush to cover the near-post and open up space behind. Again, on 71 minutes, Higuain had another half-chance as he came running into the box, onto Callejon’s cross. He initially took in the pass played to him just inside the opposition half, then spread a nice ball out wide to the runner Callejon. The key then was that he sprinted into the box, Magnanelli stays ahead of him but goes more in the direction of the penalty spot and Higuain just angles his run slightly to meet the ball first as it comes into the box. He does the work of two players – picking the ball up and starting the break, then sprinting to make up the ground to be the man in the middle.
It almost seems like he does better on his own in the middle at times, as demonstrated to an extent on 78mins, when himself and Callejon got between the lines on the break. The pass came in from the wing and Callejon jumped over it, with the ball not quite reaching Higuain – who wants to be the first man to meet the cross by making his own space and preparing early to get his chance on goal. Having said that, Napoli’s build up play was very good throughout the game, and it was a huge ask of Magnanelli to constantly marshal Higuain’s space. In a couple of instances, we saw Napoli with three players going forward in space between Sassuolo’s lines of defence and midfield.
Despite the home side’s intent and incisiveness going forward, Sassuolo had a chance to come back into the game as Napoli lifted their foot off the gas for a while in the second half – as they sometimes do. Sassuolo tried to get crosses in, with Sansone showing some nice footwork and intent down the left on one particular occasion. There were brief shades of the Inter game, where Napoli nearly let Mancini’s side get a point late on had it not been for Reina’s terrific save from a header. Pellegrini had a header from a cross that came in late on, but it just flashed wide. Reina had a couple of iffy moments as well, flapping at a cross and then running out of his goal at the end to slide tackle an opponent after scuffing a clearance. Di Francesco brought on Floro Flores and rolled the dice throwing on Defrel as well at the end, but to no avail.
The goal at the end of the game is slightly unfair to analyse too closely, because it’s the last kick of the game and Sassuolo were always going to be slightly open and out of shape. All the same, Higuain was still picking up that area of unmanned space in the area, ready to receive the ball. He turned infield and hit a shot between the two defenders, who lazily tried to block without closing him down quickly enough, and found the near corner of the goal. Mentally and physically, the Sassuolo players had pretty much given up keeping track of Higuain by then, and he drifted infield to occupy the space to receive the ball in. That’s the danger trying to defend against him – if you switch off or don’t organise men effectively to cover space and runs, Napoli have a decent chance of opening their opposition up and picking out a shot on goal. Sassuolo won’t be too disappointed by their performance, but the game pretty much went true to form – Napoli put their foot on the pedal and created enough chances to take the lead, and Sassuolo didn’t have the same firepower to keep up (admittedly missing Berardi).