It has been a mere two games but Walter Mazzarri’s part-time return to the Napoli job has thrust him against difficult opponents in Atalanta and Real Madrid.
To put his return into context he’s the man that gave us the iconic Cavani, Lavazzi, Hamsik trifecta….a decade ago.
Football has evolved and changed at breakneck speed ever since, but that didn’t stop illustrious Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis calling his old flame to take over the reigns temporarily for seven months.
The equivalent is something like Tottenham Hotspur calling up Harry Redknapp to take over for a few months whilst Daniel Levy gets things in order. Redknapp’s stint at Tottenham brought us Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and a maiden Champions League qualification, but it’s not like Daniel Levy would call him up now.
Since 2013 Mazzarri is one of the managers who has gone through the ringer at Watford and Cagliari, so his Napoli tenure is being watched with much intrigue.
Can a veteran manager grasp an excellent opportunity thrown his way?
The victory over Atalanta last week, felt like a Napoli team rejuvenated and unleashed from the shackles of whatever Rudi Garcia was trying to do. Napoli pressed higher but more importantly looked like a united team again.
Victor Osimhen and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia had looked frustrated at times under Garcia publicly showing their disdain when results weren’t going their way. After Zambo Anguissa equalised to make it 2-2 vs Real Madrid last night there was a huge group hug from the players, staff and management. Everyone was feeling the love.
It may feel as though that is what Mazzarri’s job is, to remind this team they were one of the best in Europe last season.
Analysing the game against Real Madrid was a tad tricky, as Madrid had already qualified and Napoli need just a point to go through but it’s still worth picking through the bones of some aspects that may be important for Napoli going forward:
Although it’s a new beginning under Mazzarri, Napoli were mesmerising last season as Spaletti trusted the players to create and find space spontaneously without a rigid positional system. It felt a little bit like last night it was similar for Napoli they just found it particularly hard to create much space.
Zambo Anguissa spent most of the game playing advanced trying to support the three forwards, but whenever Napoli’s back four passed to Stanislas Lobotka in midfield there wasn’t really a clear route to goal. There tended to be a large gap in Napoli’s midfield with Real Madrid sometimes going man-to-man or Dani Ceballos squeezing the pitch to make a little more narrow.
Napoli found it hard to go through the centre of Madrid and create space, even when Lobotka did manage to get on the ball Anguissa was a little too high, or they relied on Simeone dropping from attack.
The times where Napoli decided to go wide, Real Madrid were privy to this and sprung into a press with Carvajal particularly tight on Kvicha Kvartshkhelia for the whole game. It probably didn’t help that it was the less attack-minded Juan Jesus over on Kvara’s side, so he barely had much support in terms of overlapping, but Madrid’s press whenever Napoli had the ball wide forced the Partenopei back.
It was hard for Napoli to funnel the ball from defence to attack through the centre of the pitch, I do wonder whether pushing Anguissa or even Zelenski a little deeper could’ve been a solution, as Madrid’s occasional press when the ball went wide seemed to be on purpose and thwarted Kvartshkhelia. It helped that Madrid has Ceballos a mere 5 yards away to help out whilst another midfielder covered Zielenski in the middle.
The first goal actually came because Napoli found space wide and was able to hook it to the back post for Giovanni Di Lorenzo to fire back across goal for Gio Simeone.
The times where Napoli did look dangerous is when they made use of the full-backs overlaps and attacking ability. When Napoli managed to get it over to the right side and entice Madrid’s press, Di Lorenzo could find a player forward dragging a Real Madrid player with him whilst a winger in Politano is pushing a full-back (Mendy) up to utilize the space.
This created space because four Real Madrid players were enticed into pressing and Napoli could venture forward using an attacker (Anguissa) dropping off.
It’s also how Napoli’s equalizer to make it 2-2 came about with Di Lorenzo again staying high up the pitch, as they pressed slightly higher 2nd half so he could once again make use of Anguissa in the half-space.
Despite Madrid’s many injuries in truth perhaps the move to play Ceballos paid off invertedly or not, as what he could do is join the attacking line but also use his defensive abilities when Napoli needed to be stopped wide in particular.
Madrid were aggressive throughout and largely quelled Napoli. If Real Madrid can stop an opposition in a game they are one of the most dangerous teams in the world, simply by possessing elite players who can conjure up magic or combine with each other, playing neat one-twos and figuring out space themselves to score. A lot of the times when it comes to analysing Real Madrid I find myself saying ‘how did that happen?’
In a scenario like above for example, Ceballos has come central for the ball to receive from Rodrygo, look how wide Carvajal is and the look how close Bellingham and Diaz are to Rodrygo as he is on the ball.
Napoli never stopped the ball coming into Bellingham or Ceballos whenever he moved central, from there Madrid could find the gaps wide as they pushed Mendy or Carvajal up (as happened for Bellingham’s goal) or use neat interchanges in their relationism system to find a route to goal
Rodrygo’s smart movement pulled a full-back wide, whilst Bellingham and Ceballos could occupy Napoli’s two centre-backs. In the mean time Diaz on the other side could push his full-back wider with Carvajal pushing up when he needed to, finding space on the flanks of Napoli’s block
It got worse when Joselu came on as they then had a striker’s central presence to constantly occupy Napoli’s centre-backs and Bellingham could receive to start the move then push up and occupy Napoli’s back line with again space on the wings from the full-backs. It meant a front four of Madrid were occupying Napoli’s back line with the full-backs pushed up to create as much space wide as possible, with Napoli’s wingers tucked in but also wary of the threat wide freeing up Rodrygo and Diaz in the middle.
Bellingham is one of the best players in the world right now and even with the injuries Real Madrid are still elite of the elite. Napoli in parts looked a little better with a calmer foot on the ball than under Garca, but quite blunt in attack bar Di Lorenzo bombing forward.
It’s far too early to draw conclusions with Mazzarri under Napoli, particularly as they won’t be coming up against Madrid every week. It seemed as though Napoli were going back to what they did under Spaletti with a 4-3-3 and letting players create solutions on the pitch.
Napoli should still qualify with a point needed vs Braga, but how things will unfold under Mazzarri will be fascinating.