Manchester City welcome Napoli to the Etihad Stadium tonight in one of the most anticipated games of this Champions League season. Not only does the match represent a meeting of the league leaders in England and Italy, but it also sees two of Europe’s most attractive teams come together.
City have made an exceptional start to their 2017/18 Premier League campaign. They have won seven of their eight matches, drawing one and scoring 29 goals. Along the way they have defeated Liverpool and reigning champions Chelsea, and have scored five or more in half of their fixtures.
Napoli have enjoyed an even better start in Serie A, winning all eight of their league matches up to this point. They have found the net 26 times, scoring three or more in all but one game. They were limited to a 1-0 win away to fellow title contenders Roma last weekend, while their other big win came away to Lazio.
Each team appears more than aware of the opposition’s quality, as several pre-match statements have confirmed.
Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho described the Italian outfit as “a machine for goals and spectacle”, while Napoli icon Marek Hamšík said that the English side are “a great team, with great players, who play great football.”
Here are three reasons why tonight’s clash is the most exciting Champions League game of the round.
Pep Guardiola is, in the eyes of many, the world’s best manager. However, his followers are passionate about his football in a way that doesn’t relate solely to his results. The Catalan built wonderful teams at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and appears to have done the same with Manchester City.
His ideals have always been to win the ball back quickly after it is lost, to defend high up the pitch, to control the game through use of the ball, and to have purposeful possession. His philosophy is known as ‘Positional Play’, and his principles are essential.
Maurizio Sarri is a similarly idealistic head coach. Having worked in finance and without a top-level playing career to boast, he began coaching seriously in his 30s and worked his way up the Italian football ladder. Having taken Empoli into Serie A and survived, he took charge of Napoli in 2015.
Since his arrival, the Neapolitan side have been transformed into one of the finest teams on the continent. His commitment to building possession from the back and near-constant attack has also led to many neutrals and analysts studying his side’s game.
FAST, FLUID ATTACKS
Manchester City’s 7-2 hammering of Stoke last Saturday acted as a confirmation of their vast attacking potential. They showed the versatility of their build-up, using the full-backs to draw out the opposition wingers and create space in the middle for David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus to exploit.
In other matches, Guardiola has instructed his full-backs to act as classic wing-backs and occupy the flanks, or to drive inward and support build-up centrally from a slightly more advanced position. This flexibility gives them important options when it comes to bypassing the first line of pressure.
The freedom afforded to De Bruyne and Silva as the outer midfielders in a 4-3-3 is integral to City’s attacking game. Both players are intelligent off the ball and vary their positions to cause the opposition marking difficulties. They then combine well with the forwards and wingers to progress possession into the final third effectively.
Napoli are similar to Manchester City in certain fundamental ways – both like to build from the back, retain and utilise the ball, and have plenty of positional fluidity – but there are some important differences.
While City vary their build-up and system depending on the opponent, Sarri’s side often start attacks the same way – the centre-backs, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol, combine with defensive midfielder Jorginho within a 4-3-3 setup.
Napoli are also not quite as balanced a side, generally using their left and right sides in different ways. The left features plenty of rotations between the left-back, central midfielder and left winger, while their right is built on directness and speed and is often used for switches of play. It’s no coincidence that 49 per cent of their attacks come down the left hand-side.
Meanwhile, up front, the two teams use their wingers very differently. While the Italians like theirs – particularly Lorenzo Insigne on the left – to drift infield when appropriate and combine, Guardiola tends to want his – Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling – to keep a wide position to open up space inside for team-mates.
Despite these details, both Manchester City and Napoli are fluid attacking sides who like to play vertically, passing through the lines, at high speed.
ORGANISED, AGGRESSIVE DEFENCES
While the attacking play of both sides may be what stands out, neither would be quite as effective were it not for their outstanding defensive games. In the Premier League, only Manchester United have conceded fewer than City’s four goals, while in Serie A no team has let in fewer than Napoli’s five.
When discussing his opponent’s style of play, Guardiola was quick to mention their aggressive defence. “I like to watch the teams that want to play,” he said. “In Italy, where the culture is defensive, Napoli play 40 metres in front of their penalty box – a bit like [iconic former AC Milan and Italy coach] Arrigo Sacchi did.”
Sarri’s side play a very high defensive line, usually just beneath the halfway line, as a means to retain compactness while at the same time pressing high up the pitch. They generally move in accordance with the ball, occasionally using man-oriented marking, and look to cut off the opposition ball-players passing options.
Guardiola’s respect for Napoli no doubt comes from his own established tactical preferences. He has always been a purveyor of counter-pressing, instructing his teams to win the ball back immediately after losing it high up the pitch.
Manchester City also use a high defensive line and utilise what some call an ‘attacking press’, looking to force turnovers high to create immediate scoring chances.
Their intelligence in this aspect was most evident in the 1-0 win over Chelsea, where Sané and Sterling cut off passing lanes out to the English champions’ wing-backs and forced multiple errors in their opposition’s build-up.