Simply put, Napoli vs. Manchester City was one of the best and most entertaining games of football you will see in a while. This game was like one of those superhero movies where the hero has to defeat a dark mirror of him/herself, because for the majority of this game, it looked like Manchester City were playing the Italian version of Manchester City.
Napoli came out with an aggression and confidence that avoided them in the opening minutes of the first matchup between these two in Manchester. City fans definitely got a taste of what it’s like to be opposing fans, with their team having to absorb consistent attacks and rely on set pieces to create chances (I know City also created plenty of chances without set pieces, but you get the point.)
Everyone knew coming into this game that these two teams play a similar style, which is why this game was one of the most hyped based on entertainment value alone. It certainly did not disappoint on the pitch, with a back-and-forth match that featured loads of chances for both sides. At the end of the day, City were better at playing this particular brand of football than Napoli, and the score reflected that.
Pep Guardiola made a couple of lineup changes for this match, bringing on Sergio Agüero, Danilo Luiz and Ilkay Gundogan for Gabriel Jesus, Kyle Walker and David Silva. Interestingly, Gundogan did not play the defensive midfield role as the pre-match lineup indicated, but instead was box-to-box and often the most advanced City midfielder.
Pep and City were clearly aware of playing irresponsibly against a strong Napoli side in a hostile environment. The general philosophy of a Guardiola team will never change, but he allowed his team to fall into a counter-attacking mindset, especially early on in the game. Napoli needed three points from this game in order to be in position to advance through to the knockout rounds, and Pep planned on them coming out swinging.
To counteract this, the standard aggressive press that City usually deploy was tweaked to funnel the ball into areas of the pitch that were less dangerous or would allow for trapping. Anyone who has seen Napoli play can see that they move the ball quickly with one-touch passing and operate incredibly well in small spaces. Because of this, it is wasteful to chase the ball around in the open field where your opponent has several passing options to move the ball to. Instead, Pep pulled back on his press and tried to funnel Napoli’s possession to the flanks, where City would be able to close and force a turnover.
The three most advanced players in the press were Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Gundogan. With two attacking central midfielders closing passing lanes and Agüero applying ball pressure, the Napoli backline needed to either play a ball over the top or play wide. Napoli aren’t the biggest fans of booting the ball just like City aren’t and often held possession down the flanks.
City wingers Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling sat deeper in midfield, sometimes clearly angling their bodies to the sidelines ready to pounce on any wide players receiving passes. Once in position, full-backs Fabian Delph or Danilo would step up to the Napoli player and Fernandinho would mark the midfield outlet. This adjustment made it hard for Napoli to build up play through the center of the pitch and disrupted their possession.
That being said, Napoli know what they are doing and were able to escape this trap at moments and swing the ball across the backline quickly to take advantage of space caused by City flooding one side of the field. Furthermore, City left themselves in difficult defensive positions when Sterling or Sané would venture too far up the pitch before the trap called for it, leaving a lot of space between them and the backline.
The first Napoli goal was an example of this. Napoli broke the City press down the left wing after Sterling and Danilo lost contain, allowing Lorenzo Insigne to make a diagonal run to the 18. Napoli center forward Dries Mertens dropped off the backline to receive the pass, pulling John Stones with him. He laid off a beautiful one-touch pass right back into the path of Insigne into space Danilo had been unable to recover to. Insigne had space and time to pick his spot in the side netting to beat Ederson.
This strategy manifested in a narrow defensive formation from Manchester City, clogging the midfield and pulling wingers/full-backs in tight. A narrow formation has the added benefit that it encourages the opponent to throw crosses into the box from the wings, something Napoli don’t thrive at considering their lack of big targets in front of goal.
Offensively, City struggled with building an attack out the back with Napoli’s pressure, and were left pushed back into their own defensive third on several occasions. This has been a position where Pep’s team has lacked awareness in the past but the backline made good decisions throughout the game, avoiding being left exposed by bad turnovers.
As the game progressed, City grew into the lethal attack we know and love based on a strong counter attack and Agüero dropping into midfield to drop off link-up passes. In the early stages, Sergio was left isolated amongst the Napoli backline while the rest of the team was pinned back. But City became more comfortable breaking the press, and Agüero would present himself as an outlet where he could find teammates at full speed with space to attack a recovering defense.
This was one of the most patient games we have seen Manchester City play this season. They worked hard to win the ball back, but were not desperate. They maintained their philosophy of playing out from the back, but didn’t force passes that weren’t there. Make no mistake, Napoli were the better team for portions of this game, but they could not maintain the consistent quality that City bring to the table week after week.
Manchester City are a true contender to win the Champions League this season. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement and is certainly a statement that you could have been making for weeks now. This game is further justification of that, especially when you consider Guardiola didn’t start Kyle Walker or David Silva and we did not see peak Kevin De Bruyne.
It’s hard to not get your hopes up with a team like this and there is obviously a long road to travel yet, but the odds of this team not winning trophies this year seem to be increasingly unlikely.