Luciano Spalletti: The tactics behind Napoli’s title dream

SSC Napoli are dominating Serie A. Italy’s football fans are enthusiastic, not only about the success of Napoli but above all about the kind of football that they play. The country’s sports press speaks of “The Great Beauty”.

Has the race for the Scudetto already been decided, even though the first half of A league will only ends this month? Who can still endanger Naples? In any case, the Tifosi fans are dreaming of winning the third title in the club’s history after the historic championships of 1987 and 1990.

With the departures of Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, it looked as if it were the beginning of the end for Napoli after an impressive third-place finish last season. However, one of the most underrated and cheap transfer windows in recent history has seen all these players get replaced by arguably much more dynamic team players in Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Kim Min-jae, Frank Anguissa and several excellent loan players who have completely revolutionized Napoli.

In questo tactical analysis in form of a scout reports, we’re going to take a look at the tactics behind their incredible start to the season. This analysis will demonstrate how Luciano Spalletti has transformed Naples into one of the most exciting teams in European football.

Data Analysis

Napoli’s fantastic start is reflected in the statistics: They are currently top of the table in Serie A and finished first in the UEFA Champions League group stage. But it doesn’t end there. They defeated Juventus 5-1 recently and they’ve also scored more than any other team in both competitions while averaging the highest expected goals and the most shots of any team.

So, let’s dive deeper into these numbers by taking a look at the starting XI and key players. Their preferred formation this season has been the 4-3-3, with the 4-2-3-1 also featuring on a few different occasions.

The players used have also been relatively consistent, with Alex Meret in goal and the back-four consisting of Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Amir Rrahmani, Kim Min-jae and Mário Rui. The 25-year-old Kim Min-jae is the surprising star at the back for Napoli and has helped fill the void left by Koulibaly so far. He averages the highest amount of passes per game in the league, helping the team break the first line of press. At the same time, he also is an excellent defender ranking in the top seven in the league for blocks. Not only that: he already has two goals to his name and is incredibly effective from set pieces.

The midfield of Stanislav Lobotka, Frank Anguissa and Piotr Zieliński has featured the most but Tanguy Ndombélé has also been a key player in the midfield three. The two defensive midfielders are crucial for Napoli in picking up the ball between the lines and creating overloads out wide. Zieliński has been excellent at supporting the attacks so far with three goals and five assists to his name in Serie A. He also ranks in the top 2.5% for expected assists in the league.

Up top is where Naples have been the most exciting this season. They play with a front three of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Victor Osimhen and either Matteo Politano or Hirving Lozano on the right flank with Giacomo Raspadori also being a key player up top to replace Osimhen when needed. Kvaratskhelia has taken the league by storm with seven goals and nine assists so far. He’s excellent at taking on opponents and will constantly drift into pockets of space where he can, before then attacking the backline.

Similarly, Osimhen is back to his best after a long injury last season with twelve goals and four assists already. He is constantly attacking the space behind the backline, looking for balls over the top and is always ready in the box to meet any crosses or cutbacks. He currently ranks first in the Serie A for expected goals at 1.02 expected goals per 90.

As a whole, Napoli are a team that likes to dominate the game and so far, they’ve averaged the second-highest amount of possession in the league. Their attacks have slightly favored the left flank with the greatest number of shots coming from the right side of the box given mostly by Kvaratskhelia cutting inside and finding players in this area. These stats give us some good insight into how dangerous Napoli have been this season with a very quick and vertical style of play that instantly puts the opposition on the back foot.

Build-up Play

When looking at Napoli’s build-up play, we can start to see the true genius of Spalletti’s tactics. From goal-kicks, Napoli will almost always look to build from the back. However, Spalletti is a manager who doesn’t insist on build-up play at all costs. If the moment is right, he encourages his team to play long balls into the three forwards.

Nonetheless, the initial structure is resemblant of a 2-3-2-3 with the full-backs hugging the touchline and Lobotka in the centre. The two centre-backs have been excellent at coping with pressure and will comfortably rotate the ball waiting for a gap to open up into the other two midfielders or even for a pass over the top into Kvaratskhelia or Politano.

Similarly, Meret will also quickly look for a pass into the full-backs if the opposition presses too high or even into Osimhen who can knock it down into one of the two Mezzalas. They now have space ahead of them to attack the back line.

If the team struggles to find space, then one of the two midfielders — usually Anguissa — will look to drop deep to outnumber the press. Doing this frees up space in the center which can be occupied by the winger. If the opposition are able to force them near the touchline, then a direct pass into the winger can also be extremely dangerous as they can quickly knock it past the full-back and attack the space.

In Possession

With Spalletti’s side being excellent at maintaining possession under pressure, the team can quickly gain ground and move into their second phase of play. During this, they look to maintain a similar 2-3-2-3 structure. This allows the two wingers to move more centrally into the half spaces and the full-backs to push up. This also creates a triangle shape in the center with the holding mid and the other two midfielders holding a position behind the midfield line or dropping deep to receive the ball at times.

One of the two full-backs — usually Di Lorenzo — will drop to form a back-three creating a diamond shape in the center for easier passing lanes. The midfield three adopts a staggered triangle shape in the center given mostly by Zieliński’s preference for playing in a more central position. This means the backline has several different options for moving the ball forward.

If there’s little space between the lines, then Zieliński will often come short, freeing up space for Kvaratskhelia to move inside and more easily link up play with Osimhen and Politano. The combination of Kvaratskhelia dropping deep and Osimhen, Politano and one full-back pushing up causes a lot of stress to the backline which will often find itself breaking its shape to cover all these runs.

Kvaratskhelia’s positioning means he can often receive the ball with little pressure before turning and attacking the backline and making a pass. Furthermore, his more central positioning will often cause the defense to tighten its shape. This means, that there is more space on the flank which Napoli often exploits with long switches in play into the full-back.

Attacking Phase

When entering the final third, Napoli will consistently create chances from the half-spaces. Thanks to the midfielders and full-backs, Spalletti can always get at least four players on the backline, with the fifth player attacking these spaces and disrupting the defensive block.

The front five can be formed in many different ways. At times, the wingers are out wide and it’s the midfielders that attack the half-spaces as the full-backs offer support. On other occasions, the full-backs push up while the wingers are ready to make a run between the centre-back and the full-back, freeing up space for the midfielders on the edge of the box. Finally, on other occasions, the midfielder can find themself out wide with the full-back in the half-space and the winger ready in the box for a cross to the front post.

Spalletti instructs his players to occupy dangerous spaces rather than fixed positions and these constant rotations mean Napoli can very quickly expose weaknesses in the opposition’s defense and have plenty of different options to explore in the final third.

The structure in the opposition’s half will often resemble a 2-2-1-5 with the two centre-backs, one midfielder and one inverted full-back as defensive cover, and Zieliński on the edge of the box. The front five consists of one full-back, one midfielder and the three natural attackers.

Once the ball is in the box, then it’s an almost guaranteed opportunity for Napoli. Osimhen’s high-end pace means he can beat the defender to any balls in the box and the wingers’ dribbling ability means they can always find space for an opportunity. Napoli’s in-possession principles are some of the most exciting in Europe and will often create chances in very unexpected ways.

Defensive Phase

Napoli’s defensive discipline and structure is also worth noting as they currently have the second-best expected goals against in the league. While Napoli do look to win the ball back early, they aren’t an inherently aggressive team. They also don’t tend to press very high up the pitch, as they are currently ranking outside the top five for pressing intensity.

From opposition goal-kicks, Osimhen will look to quickly close down and isolate the centre-backs in possession while the two wingers stay in a rather wide shape to prevent the ball from going to the full-back. This forces a central pass into the midfielders, where Napoli are extremely aggressive and put as much pressure as possible on the midfielder receiving the ball.

This makes it much harder to make a play and so will force a pass back which is a trigger for Osimhen and the wingers to close down this pass and start their press. This often results in teams facing Napoli looking to quickly play a ball over the top. However, the centre-backs are quick to close this space down and regain possession.

When falling back into their own half, the shape will often drop into a 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1. Osimhen stays up top to pressure the centre-backs while the two wingers are tasked with covering the full-backs. Again, they are forcing play centrally where the tight five-man block can quickly close down any players. The main objective is to keep the two lines as tight as possible and force the opposition to cross into the box where the centre-backs can clear the area and Napoli can regain possession.

If they’re able to get the ball, then Osimhen’s positioning up top means the team can quickly move the ball to him where he can lay it off to the wingers and can start a dangerous and quick counterattack.


These tactics mixed with some incredibly exciting young talents have taken Napoli to new heights, and there seems to be a whole new energy surrounding the club and the fans with their eyes set on winning their first league title since the era of Diego Maradona.

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