Barcelona vs Napoli: 2nd Leg Preview

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Competition: UEFA Champions League 2019/20

Stage: Round of 16, 2nd Leg

Date: 8th of August, Friday

Venue: Camp Nou Stadium, Barcelona, Spain

Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Fans might remember him from the 2015 UCL final, 2012 semi-final against Chelsea (1st Leg) and when the same opponents met in the R16 in 2018)

Barcelona will host Napoli at Camp Nou in the crucial 2nd leg in the first installment of the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League 2019/20 season. The first leg ended in a stalemate, with a slight advantage to the Catalans (away goal). Despite playing in front of an empty Camp Nou, the home team come in good spirits having won all their home games in the competitions since May 2013, while the away side haven’t progressed past this stage having been eliminated by the eventual champions on both occasions.

Current form

Domestic Competitions

Ever since Gattuso took over the helm, the Azurri have picked up pace in the league, finally finishing a disappointing 7th place after defeating Sarri’s Juventus twice (though in two different competitions) and many other high flying teams like Lazio, Sassuolo and Roma. The highlight of the season was obviously the Copa Italia in which they beat Inter Milan and Juventus to eventually win the competition guaranteeing Europa League qualification. 

Setien, on the other hand, suffered a disappointing run of games after the restart, to give up a two-point lead and settle for 2nd place.

The Champions League

Barcelona qualified for the round of 16 as table-toppers having won 4 of their 6 group games, with the highlight being the 2-1 victory against Inter Milan (At the San Siro) with a highly changed line-up. But, they ended up with the second least number of goals scored and conceded (among qualified for the next round).

Napoli, similarly, had a stellar performance in the group stages, gaining 13 points and coming second, which is commendable considering they took four points off the reigning champions Liverpool.

The First LEg

Napoli usually has a flexible game-plan, which is heavily opponent-dependent. Though we can see shades of Sarri’s build-up and vertical play, Ancelloti’s pragmatism and Gattuso’s ‘give it their all’ attitude and we’ll be looking at the game from Barcelona’s perspective. Though Napoli has the most possession in Serie A, we expect them to follow a similar approach to the first leg (allowing 30 PPDA as opposed to their usual average of ~15) with a compact mid-block shape (as they did against Sarri’s Juventus) and attack through quick transitions owing to the poor defensive transition of this Barcelona team and the absence of like for like replacements of  Busquets and Vidal. The biggest bane on the night will be a quick goal from the away side, that would bring back horrific memories of the past few seasons.

xG comaprison (credits:Statified Football)
xG comparison (credits:Statified Football)
Napoli Defensive Tactics

From the opposition goal-kick, the Napoli forwards didn’t push high-up in many occasions (to prevent spaces for easy progression) preferring to block passing lanes owing to the ball-playing capabilities of CBs and the GK. On the rare occasions, they did press, Mertens pressed one of the CBs preventing central penetration, with the wingers between the CBs and FBs while the CMs pressed their opposite numbers (With Fabian Ruiz intercepting central passes). Rather than winning the ball, their main aim was moving the ball to the less effective FBs in order to prevent the smooth central ball progression that the Catalans are accustomed to. Once Barcelona crossed their defensive third, Napoli quickly shifted into a mid-low block with a 4-5-1 / 4-1-4-1 formation (starting out very wide back line as a rectangle, later as a trapezoid with a narrow back line).

low-block
Space for the CBs to drive forward, but Mertens preventing connection to Busquets
low-block
Narrow and compact lines. Busquets man-marked by Mertens, while Umtiti is allowed to drive
deep block
Sometimes even resorting to a 5 at the back (with Callejon dropping) to prevent the Fb from pressing high especially in dead ball situations or in prolonging dangerous situations.

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The intention from the Azurri was to shut down the central connections on the pitch, forcing the away team to play wide. They pressed selectively, with the ball sided CM pressing the ball carrier, with the ball sided winger moving narrow (as in most 4-5-1 systems). In case, the ball moved to the wings, the FB would move high up to press the opposition, while the rest of the defensive line would stay in position, defending the impending cross.

press
Similarly Zielinski moves up to press the ball carrier, while Insigne moves narrow. Mertens still on Busquets
press
Fabian Ruiz pressing the ball carrier, with Callejon moving narrow

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FB press
Rui moving up to press Vidal who’s wide on the right.
FB press
di Lorenzo comes out to press Firpo, creating a large gap in the half-space with no runs to exploit
di Lorenzo
di Lorenzo pressing is one of the biggest weakness for Napoli and a true winger who can run in behind or at the FB is necessary for Barcelona.

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The wide gaps that are created by moving the FBs high to press are compensated by the extremely compact lines (that prevent opposition players from lurking) and the efficient pivot (Demme). The pivot not only helps in preventing players between the lines from freely collecting the ball (usually marking the most important central player), but is efficient at sweeping loose balls.

The CBs and pivot don’t follow a complete zonal marking system but follow man-marking variations for players in their zone (ie., moving up to press a forward in their zone, even if it leads to a disruption in the defensive stability), which can lead to spaces.

Barcelona’s reaction

Mertens’ man-marking caused Barcelona (and Busquets) lots of problems (only subsided after Milik was subbed on and they moved a 2 man forward pressing system), as it disrupted the rhythm in the game. This invited Rakitic to drop deep in the right half-space (sometimes even joining the backline), to collect the ball while the other CM (Frenkie de Jong) higher up in the left half-space to assist the forwards.

1st change
Rakitic dropping back on the right to help progress the ball, while de Jong moves higher. Though this didn’t have much effectiveness. (credit:Piotr Foot)

When this proved ineffective (as Frenkie was almost always crowded by 4-5 players), the away side resorted to playing around the congested center, dragging the home side to the left and launching the ball to the right to a wide player (usually Vidal or Messi) without systematically eliminating pressure lines, thus playing wide too deep. This allowed the Insigne to join Marco Rui into 2v1 situations on the right-wing (with the pivot (Demme) preventing central connections and Zielinski blocking half-space movement in the same line), which prevented the ball from moving into dangerous positions. Added to this was the poor movement in the half-spaces, (in the space between the high FB and the CB). They were also very poor in attacking transition, where they lost quite a few chances before the home side got back into shape due to poor passing decisions.

2v1s
Vidal is forced with a 2v1 on the right, with no half-space runners forcing him to pass it back (credits:Piotr foot)
Similar situation but much higher.  (credits:Piotr foot)
Similar situation but much higher. (credits:Piotr foot)

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The below goals signify the route that Barcelona have to follow to breakdown this team.

In the barcelona goal, Vidal drags the CB deep with him, to allow for space behind for Semedo who is 1v1 with the FB to make a run and play it to Griezmann in the center). Similarly with Atalanta, invited Rui to press higher and played a series of in-out/out-in passes to create advantages on the right wing and play it central where a late run scores the goal, as the RB is narrow

scaled heatmap (credits:Statified Football)
Barcelona heatmap (credits:Statified Football)
passmap
Barcelona passmap (credits:11tegen11)

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As Domènec Torrent has explained in this wonderful article, the home side should know the instances to move the ball quickly in transitions as opposed to looking for control of the ball. This is what seems to lack in this team, as they don’t “flick the switch” in clutch situations that lead to goals.

Napoli Attacking Tactics

While playing out from the back (conventionally i.e. not pressed as much) the pivot splits the two CBs (in slightly complicated situations, Fabian Ruiz drops deep to help out). Koulibaly is one of the most important pieces as a ball playing center backs, moving the ball between the lines with great efficiency. Demme, on the other hand, is more conservative in passing his way out of trouble (usually with short passes), this helps in distribution.

In most cases when pressed, Napoli invites the opposition teams to press by keeping up to 4 outfielders (i.e. CBs, Demme and Ruiz) in the box. The CBs are mostly seen hugging the horizontal touchline (increasing the distance that the presser has to cover) while the full-backs move higher and wider near the vertical touchlines. As most teams press centrally, the Azzurri are proficient in building up from tight spots on the wings.

build-up
Napoli build-up

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This usually involves the FB (usually di Lorenzo) playing a short pass (sometimes lofted) into the ball sided CM (usually Fabian Ruiz) who moves wide into space in front of the winger (usually Callejon who drags the FB deeper into his half) to help progress the ball. While on the other wing, Marco Rui is more adept at carrying (dribbling with) the ball as opposed to short passing. As opposed to Barcelona’s central pressing approach, (with most of the mistakes occurring due to assigned opponents which meant that in a practical scenario it meant Vidal running halfway across the pitch to press Rui which allowed the latter to dribble with the ball)  Juventus found success in matching Napoli’s wide overload by letting CBs free (this is also because of their exceptional passing ability to find spaces in behind to exploit), while instead blocking passing lanes.

Coming from an exciting team like Leipzig in the January transfer window, Demme has been a blessing in disguise as he provides immense stability (not only covering for the defensive deficiencies of the CMs but also to manipulate pressure and open passing lanes) to Fabian Ruiz and Zielinski allowing them to enjoy attacking responsibilities. Though the two CMs don’t combine very often (the three players (i.e. FB, winger and CM) usually combine effectively), they work in tandem to provide the wingers in good positions where most of the attacks in the final third originate.

Mertens 3 Napoli Barcelona

While Fabian Ruiz is the more technical midfielder who enjoys carrying the ball into attack and play deft passes in gaps due to his good close control and technical abilities (which is signified in his dribbles which is only lower than Insigne (coincidentally higher than every Barca player excluding Messi), his partner Zielinski, on the other hand, is more attack-minded (also the first to counter-press upon losing the ball), usually bombing into the box occupying the near post (while the lone striker occupies the far post).

The forward line is very fluid in attack-Insigne usually starts on the left, but (like Messi) has the freedom to roam (usually centrally being right-footed), while Callejon is more of a traditional winger (right-footed on the right meaning pinning the FB and making overlapping movements). Unlike most teams though, the FBs don’t just bomb forward, unless the ball enters the final third. Usually, overlapping is triggered when the wingers move narrow, else they are happy to underlap the wingers in the halfspaces. 

They also have two very different striking options in Milik and Mertens. Milik is more of a target man, who helps to lead the press and takes first-time shots while, Mertens is more of a deep-lying forward, who is very flexible in positioning and moves into spaces (usually behind the opposition FB on the left) to facilitate passing in behind for the other forwards to latch onto.

The biggest attacking threat that the Italians pose is through quick attacking transitions, which have multiple schemes. The more common scheme usually involves a roaming Mertens who drops deep to receive and with one-twos can run freely at the backline forcing them to move up to press him, leaving space for the wingers. One of the slightly less common schemes involves the wingers pulling opposition FBs deep, letting the CMs run unopposed centrally or in the half-space for the opposite flank winger to finish.

scaled heatmap (credits:Statified Football)
Napoli heatmap (credits:Statified Football)

Players like Fabian Ruiz and Mario Rui are adept at playing all kinds of long balls- from deep behind the last line, to switch flanks and also to cross from wide into the box. 

Added to the threat that Mertens (who is overperforming his xG and is the highest goalscorer for Napoli this season) and Insigne provide in the box, along with Fabian Ruiz and Zielinski also provide threat from the edge of the penalty area. The usual scenario includes collecting the ball from the half-spaces and shooting into the far end while moving centrally.

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                                    <img width="640" height="482" src="https://barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-768x578.jpeg" alt="Shots (credits:Statified Football)" srcset="https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=768%2C578&amp;ssl=1 768w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=300%2C226&amp;ssl=1 300w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=1024%2C770&amp;ssl=1 1024w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=1536%2C1156&amp;ssl=1 1536w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=2048%2C1541&amp;ssl=1 2048w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=90%2C68&amp;ssl=1 90w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=112%2C84&amp;ssl=1 112w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=356%2C268&amp;ssl=1 356w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=470%2C354&amp;ssl=1 470w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=70%2C53&amp;ssl=1 70w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=100%2C75&amp;ssl=1 100w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?resize=150%2C113&amp;ssl=1 150w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?w=1280&amp;ssl=1 1280w, https://i1.wp.com/barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/shotmap-scaled.jpeg?w=1920&amp;ssl=1 1920w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" />                                          <figcaption>Shots(credits:Statified Football)</figcaption>
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    <p>In the first leg, it was common to see Vidal press Mario Rui during the build-up, as he is vulnerable in the defensive third with about 3.66 passes/game blocked and 40% short passes accuracy. Similarly, on the other wing, Juventus found success pressing Callejon preventing him to turn and taking advantage of the spread-out defence during the build-up.</p>        
        <h4>Team News</h4>      
    <p>As expected Setien gave hand-wavy answers to any question concerning tactics and team selection. Although it is very likely for Suarez to feature in the game, I personally would prefer Ansu Fati to start on the left running at the space behind di Lorenzo, with Griezmann central (cover-shadowing Demme). With the extreme counter-pressing need and mobility-Roberto (pressing Rui during build-up, while moving wide in possession with Messi in the half-space) and Riqui Puig (pressing Callejon in build-up while moving slightly deep to help reach the ball behind the half-space for Ansu Fati) are expected to play as interiors with de Jong (who has a very tough battle with Mertens) as the central connection. With Umtiti missing out through injury, Lenglet is expected to take over to partner Pique. Alba will return to the left back position with Semedo retaining his place on the right (who have to play less openly to not only check quick counters but also to make decoy movements and occupy wingers for a wide transfer).</p>       
            <figure><img src="https://barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/squad-barca-768x768.jpeg" alt="squad" /><figcaption>Barcelona squad</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="https://barcatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/squad-napoli-768x768.jpeg" alt="squad-napoli" /><figcaption>Napoli squad</figcaption></figure>         
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