Tuesday’s Champions League match against Napoli was certainly one of the more interesting games Manchester City have played all season. The domination that City have shown recently was obvious in flashes, most often in the first half, but they also showed some signs of worry as the game wore on.
Make no mistake, Napoli are currently in first place in Serie A with 8 wins in 8 games. They are one of the best teams in the world right now and coming away with the victory is a great result, regardless of the aesthetics.
This game definitely created some stress in my life for about two hours, but it was enthralling to see how City would respond to an opponent in their weight class. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to watch this team consistently beat English sides by 4-5 goals, but having a challenge is part of the fun.
However, City spent the first 30 minutes of this game treating Napoli like they treated Stoke City last weekend. City were comfortable on the ball early on, leading to two early goals that easily could have become four by the 28th minute. City’s success early on can be attributed to good planning by Pep Guardiola and some self inflicted wounds by Napoli.
Pep came out with the exact same lineup from last weekend and the tactical roles appeared to be unchanged. We have seen Fabian Delph move into midfield from his nominal left-back position for multiple games now, but the degree to which he did that against Napoli was a clear strategy in City’s buildup.
In the past, Delph has pinched inside when City has possession in the opponent’s half, especially when the ball was on the right side. What was different about his positioning in this game was that he was pulling in next to Fernandinho when the ball was occupied by John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, and Ederson.
This movement was surprising because it didn’t always affect the rest of the back line. Kyle Walker did maintain more conservative positioning with Delph inside but Otamendi didn’t branch out further to the left as he would if City wanted to use a 3-man backline. City’s plan was to use Delph’s movement to pull a Napoli winger or midfielder further into the pitch with him, allowing Leroy Sané or David Silva to occupy the space he had vacated.
You could see this time and time again when Delph or Fernandinho would pick up the ball from the center-backs in the defensive midfield, turn, and immediately spray a ball out to an open player on the left flank. Once there, Silva and Sané were able to create some very nice combinations to access dangerous space down the wing.
City’s ability to interchange was also crucial in this victory. Sané and Raheem Sterling did not seem to switch wings at all, but there were 3-player combinations formed on the right (Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling, Walker) and left (Sané, Delph, Silva) that would rotate between winger, midfielder, and full-back. With Delph playing more of a defensive midfielder role, this rotation was more apparent on the right side.
City did a great job of creating triangles and maintaining their structure when runs were made to disrupt passing angles. This was evident with De Bruyne dropping into the right-back role whenever Walker would move into advanced positions. The ability to do this was important in thwarting counter-attacking chances for Napoli and creating space to play balls into the box.
One of the big concerns for City coming into this season was their ability to handle counter-attacking opponents. Early on, this worry was well founded but has died down recently and was not much of a concern against Napoli. Part of this improvement is the incredible level John Stones is playing at, but part of it also smart planning by Pep. City had a tendency earlier in the season to press so far forward that both full-backs were in line with the strikers and the attacking activity was focused around the box. But this can easily get stagnant and City are not a team built to repeatedly toss hopeless crosses into the box.
This setup also led to a number of counters for opponents as the majority of City’s players could get caught chasing the play with a quick turnover. What City are doing more recently and continued against Napoli is focusing more of the attacking setup play further outside the box. This allows them to maintain possession in areas that are not in scoring range, but can be transitioned into dangerous areas quickly. This prevents stagnation in the box and allows for dynamic runs towards goal once the play is broken into space where a final ball can be played in.
City’s edge over Napoli early on was well earned, but Napoli did not do themselves any favors. They appeared to be a team that was overthinking where they were supposed to be and looked static because of it. I get the sense that teams that face City often over-plan defensive strategies to stop the attack. But we have seen time and time again that the Citizens can break down even the most defensive formations.
Napoli approached this match with a gameplan that narrowed their backline and midfield, diminishing Gabriel Jesus’ ability to drop deep and pick up passes. This obviously allowed City to expose them on the wing, though whether that was Pep’s plan from the get-go or an in-game adjustment is hard to say. But their execution was flawed because Napoli would get caught with too much space between their defense and midfield.
Both City goals are a result of poor spacing from Napoli. On Sterling’s goal in the 9th minute, Fernandinho initially switches the play to Leroy Sané, who was given way too much space on the left flank. Napoli right-back Elseid Hysaj had to sprint out to cover Sané, but the center-backs were maintaining their position in front of goal to prevent crosses and the midfield were not within an appropriate closing distance. This allowed David Silva to run into a large patch of grass where Hysaj was positioned with no Napoli midfielder to track his run. He was able to receive a pass from Sané and play it cleanly into the box from the end line. Sterling had an easy finish after the first shot was blocked.
The second goal was caused by the same flaw in Napoli’s scheme/execution. A diagonal ball played into Gabriel Jesus was cleared by Napoli and out into the middle of the pitch. However, the Italian side’s midfield was too far up field and no midfielders were able to pick up the clearance, allowing De Bruyne to simply walk onto the ball. Picking up the ball in stride he was able to dribble past Faouzi Ghoulam and play a perfect cross (he does that a lot doesn’t he?) on the floor to Jesus for another easy finish.
Napoli recovered well at the end of the first half and throughout the rest of the game. But that does not mean City played poorly after the opening half hour. If anything, the final 60 minutes of the game should have been more of what was expected and City created plenty of chances in that time. Napoli’s in-game adjustments were simple yet effective. They increased their aggression in their pressure on the ball and made an effort to maintain prolonged possession. If there is any formula in beating City, that is it.
Manchester City are a great defensive side but their strengths defensively lie primarily in winning the ball back quickly after it is lost. They do not like to play defense for long stretches of time and Napoli made them do that. City will often get impatient in extensive defensive situations and lunge into reckless tackles in attempts to win the ball back, which is exactly what happened on the second penalty awarded to Napoli.
The back line can often get caught flat-footed and are susceptible to chipped balls over the top when the opponent maintains possession near the box. Ederson’s ability to come off his line and sweep away long balls is incredible, but it’s not easy to do that when the ball movement is in and around the box.
Furthermore, Pep countered Napoli’s possession maintaining approach by using one of the advanced midfielders to aggressively press the Napoli backline. But once again, Napoli are very good, move the ball well, and were able to bypass this press often. With a City midfielder doing the press, there was now one less body in midfield for Napoli to deal with, giving them additional space to move forward into the attack.
The other component that factored into Napoli’s improved play was City’s bravado in playing out of the back. This style of play is obviously a staple of Pep’s system but sometimes you just need to boot the ball down the pitch. City seemed to grow so comfortable in the early stages of the game that it lulled them into a nonchalance in how they could break down Napoli.
With Napoli’s increased pressure, City didn’t change and continued to play out of the back, getting pushed further and further towards their own goal. Granted, City are pretty good at this and their ability to maintain possession while withstanding this pressure is impressive. Nevertheless, it only takes one bad touch for that to blow up in your face and Napoli created most of their chances from their press.
Overall, City played quite well throughout the game and deserved to take the 3 points. Napoli may be the best team City have played this season and it is encouraging to see City outclass the opponents both physically and tactically, especially in the first half.
In order to advance to the knockout stages, Pep Guardiola will undoubtedly focus on these small chinks in the armor and clean them up before City come up against a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona. This team must be starting to spoil us fans when a victory against Napoli with a few blemishes causes concern. Nevertheless, it is a great time to be a City fan and well get to see these two teams face off once again in the next Champions League round.