Napoli’s limitations were exposed on two fronts at the hands of a Chelsea team that itself is no great shakes. One aspect of this clearly has to do with the quality of personnel spread throughout the team. Another has to do with structure and the system.
Ostensibly, the advantage of playing with three centre-backs (as practised by Walter Mazzarri) is that you free up the wing-backs to join the midfield. This is also convenient if you have three excellent centre-backs and are reluctant to exclude any given one of them. Alternatively, there may be a more cautious line of reasoning behind your fielding of a central defensive trio, namely to provide extra protection for what you consider to be a porous backline.
On which of the above premises has Mazzarri’s Napoli been predicated?
It is reasonable to suspect that the manager himself would point to the relentless forays from his wing-backs (particularly when these are Maggio and Dossena) as a manifestation of the first, pro-active scenario. But, on the evidence of both games of the tie versus Chelsea alone, one shudders to think how any two from the Campagnaro-Cannavaro-Aromica triumvirate would fare as a central pairing such was their ineptness when tested at football’s highest level and, at that, even with the added protection of a third man.
Napoli’s case in particular points to a larger principle in general, and it concerns the phenomenon of the back three/back five in a zonally-marking regime (regardless of whether or not this creates situations of numerical superiority and thus the illusion of designated markers and a sweeper – that is purely circumstantial): to what extent can a team with three centre-backs truly govern its own shape?
Roy Hodgson may have been derided in light of his fraught tenure at Liverpool, and he expresses a clear predilection toward a back four, but his testimony on this matter is nonetheless instructive seeing as how he enjoyed managerial spells in Italy and came up against many an opponent who would field three centre-backs plus wing-backs.
Hodgson observed that most teams who set out with three central defenders end up defending with a back five. There are, he noted, more sophisticated arrangements whereby such a side might avoid both its wing-backs seeing themselves forced to double as full-backs simultaneously, and such an approach usually entails a defensive midfielder dropping into the back line whenever one of the wing-backs is defending an incursion down his respective flank. This mechanism, however, leads to all manner of knock-on effects in the midfield, and, unless well rehearsed and drilled, it can result in disjointedness and confusion.
In theory, and specifically concerning Napoli, one (or both, alternating) of Gargano and Inler could perform this chameleon-type role, but Mazzarri’s side appears built to defend space with the mechanism of a five-man unit. Again, it seems absurd to state that Napoli play with five defenders, given their incessant surging up both touchlines – and usually simultaneously But this is not to slight the partenopei; a back five may appear to suggest a marked negativity, and so some may accentuate the offensive disposition of the side by portraying the scheme as a back-three, but it is not a question of aesthetics and more one of space and reason.
For comparative purposes, one can point to other visually appealing sides built on three centre-backs: Fabio Capello’s Roma from 1999 to 2001 played a 3-4-1-2 with two robust central midfielders and yet for all their swashbuckling, it was left to wing-backs Cafu and Vincent Candela to shut off space in a chain of five rather than asking one from Damiano Tomassi, Emerson or Marcos Assunção to compensate. Alberto Zaccheroni’s Udinese and Milan outfits played a back three on a strictly zonal basis and regardless of numerical variation in attack presented by different opponents. It would be difficult, for example, to argue that Zaccheroni’s 1998-99 Scudetto winners were reactive or cagey; Milan finished that league season averaging a goal conceded per game, three more than runners-up Lazio who played with a back four and yet boasted a greater overall goal difference.
Milan 1998-99: for all the pro-active approach, Zaccheroni’s men still had to defend as a five-man unit along the back line.
Zaccheroni’s 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 system may have been a world away from the miserly man-marking schemes that just a decade previously still had held sway in Italy, but the fact remains that the rossoneri defended space with a line of five. If Guglielminpietro came out to intercept a rival who were progressing along his left flank, the back three of Maldini-Costacurta-Sala would shift across to cover and at a certain stage, right-wing-back Thomas Helveg was under instruction to drop in as cover at right-back slightly ahead of Sala and level with Costacurta. Of course Zaccheroni could have avoided this scenario had he preferred one of his two holding midfielders (Demetrio Albertini and Massimo Ambrosini) to augment the back line whenever appropriate, but the obligation to close off the blind side of the defence clearly lay with the wing-backs, as it does in the case of Mazzarri’s Napoli.
If there was any questioning of his side needing five men to cover the width of the pitch defensively, Zaccheroni was entitled to point to Milan’s goals for/goals against columns as evidence of the champions’ expansive nature. Moreover, when up against weaker opponents and during prolonged spells of games in which they were dominating possession, the team seldom had to contract into a five-man defence, thus further dispelling any sensation of excessive caution.
It was a similar sensation which Napoli appeared to have dispersed during the opening 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge this year, where Chelsea’s reluctance (or inability) to exploit their two-on-one advantage in wide areas, coupled with Napoli’s frequent raiding through central channels, meant that Maggio and Zúñiga rarely had to basculate in unison with the central defensive trio, certainly not both at once. But once Chelsea started to assert their advantage, with Ramires and Sturridge venturing forward and, crucially, full-backs Cole and Ivanovic doubling in support, Napoli’s wing-backs found themselves having to act as auxiliary full-backs in a five-man rear guard whenever the home side spread the play out towards the flanks. This was not inherent cautiousness on Napoli’s part; it was simply a logical sequence of movements.
Another coach who has built a career on systems featuring three centre-backs, albeit with an ever-present acknowledgement of flexibility*, is Ricardo La Volpe. The Argentine is forever seeking to break taboos and defy convention wherever he goes (note his tumultuous spell at Boca Juniors where he declared ideological war on the figure of the enganche) and his teams tend to display dynamism and elaborate movement. Yet even a coach as adventurous as La Volpe is willing to illicit accusations of negativity whenever he disowns the notion that he plays with a back three, as explained in this interview with Argentine television:
“I’ve always said that I play with a five. I have two guys on the flanks that bomb up and down, but when one pushes up, the other is ready to drop in at the back. In the end it becomes a four”.
Ricardo La Volpe: not a fan of euphemism
So it should be clear that fielding three centre-backs need not result in a dispute over semantics, as Hodgson would put it. There are teams who truly play with a back three, but typically these are teams who live to monopolise possession and can afford such a scant line defending the horizontal expanse of the pitch on account of their all-consuming and intimidatory offensive vocation. The Ajax side of the 1990s and the Barcelona of today come to mind in this respect, and it is significant that these instances of three-man defences are sometimes bolstered via the incorporation of a holding midfielder (Danny Blind/Frank Rijkaard in Ajax’s case; Sergio Busquets in the other), as opposed to incorporating wing-backs, into the back line, and whereupon the back three may replicate a back four.
And so the question remains to be asked of Napoli and, by extension, of Mazzarri as they look to the close season and beyond. Domestic as well as continental campaigns have evidenced a lack of flexibility, something which they will need an injection of if they want to be no longer pliant to teams who disarm their wing-backs.
The Campagnan club does have a wonderful young talent lying in wait in the form of Eduardo Vargas. What is less clear is whether Mazzari will be able to call upon the former Universidad de Chile player in conjunction with Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is the subject of much speculation surrounding a big-money move out of the San Paolo. Murkier still is the prospect of Mazzarri remaining in charge at Napoli beyond the summer, as club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis may seek to install a new coach and, concomitantly, a tactical revamp.
In the event of such a scenario, to what extent would Napoli require reworking: punctual tweaking and like-for-like (though improved in quality) replacements for certain positions, or a shift in the team’s model of play and the repositioning and activating of existing talents implicit to such a change?
One avenue to explore would be the preservation of Christian Maggio, albeit as a right full-back. Positionally, Maggio is anything but a disciplined full-back, classical or modern, but then neither is Dani Alves. When playing as a quartet, the Barcelona defence relies on the more assured and conservative positioning of Eric Abidal on the opposite side so as to assure a back three in the event of Alves falling out of synch with the unit. Similarly, Napoli could do with a more tempered presence in a left full-back position; then again, they could also do with at least two decent centre-backs.
Napoli could capitalise on individual strengths by forming triangular ‘societies’ at different intervals. Along the left flank, Inler activates full-back Maggio and wide-forward Vargas, whilst more centrally and further ahead there can be cooperation between Hamsik, Lavezzi (or Pandev) and Cavani.
Given his inclination to drift infield, such an adjustment would also free up José Zúñiga to become more integrally a midfielder, as occurred with Michel Bastos when he moved from Lille to Lyon, in the event of Napoli fielding a midfield four or even a trio. Not unrelated is the question of whether Marek Hamsik could play in a more compact midfield trio and not as a trequartista or, as per his current role, a supporting forward. On the basis of his being the closest semblance Napoli have to a playmaker, it is at least worth contemplating.
Brazilian coach Paulo Autori has said that, more than partnerships, a team should seek to foster triangles of mutual understanding that he designates “small societies”. Most convincing teams have at least one trio of differential players who when combined can overcome the defensive reasoning of an entire opposing team; some teams even have two. The proximity of these trios may coincide with easily-identifiable symmetry of the team’s shape: think of the Alves-Xavi-Messi triangle sitting neatly along Barcelona’s right-hand side, or the Alonso-Marcelo-Cristiano Ronaldo discourse to which Real Madrid so often resort along their left. Equally, the distribution of the triangles may supersede symmetry: view how Messi-Iniesta-Alexis Sánchez operate in a sphere almost to the left and at the fore of the attack, or how Benzema’s rightward drifting creates a similar pasture of creativity alongside the centralising tendency of Kaká and nominal right-winger Mesut Özil.
Applying the above logic to Napoli, and in order to attain what Arrigo Sacchi might term the “multiplier effect on players’ abilities”, one might see in a Maggio-Inler-Vargas axis along the right, in addition to a Cavani-Lavezzi-Hamsik grouping slightly to the left of centre and ahead. This would necessitate a 4-3-3 system, but it is worth observing that the system would arise from the harmonious connection of these player-societies, and not vice-versa.
Some combination of the alterations to personnel and/or system is likely, with the latter being even more probable were Mazzarri to depart, but what remains clear is that Napoli need more resources in their inventory, more weaponry beyond their customary armoury of speed, verve and counter-attack. A back four is not synonymous with attacking intention, anymore than a back three/five is of a defence-minded approach, but it so happens that Napoli for too long now have been hiding individual defects (notably, the ability of the centre-backs) within the structure of the latter, and the latter will only provide so much consolation.
Perhaps it is time for Napoli to desist from compensating for their faults, and to seek to multiply their strengths. And just maybe those “little societies” are what is needed to enhance the quality.
* Particularly when coaching clubs and also the national team of his adopted Mexico, the Argentine developed a reputation as the instigator of a novel device whereby his central defensive pairing became a back three by virtue of the holding midfielder dropping back during the build-up phase and liberating both full-backs to advance simultaneously in the manner of wing-backs. This mechanism was observed at close hand by Pep Guardiola during a playing spell at Dorados Sinaloa, where coach Juanma Lillo went about deploying this La Volpe-inspired manoeuvre. Guardiola himself later would employ this ‘salida lavolpiana’ as manager of Barcelona, with Sergio Busquets slotting in between Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué and thus liberating Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal to push into midfield.