Napoli 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Tactical Analysis

Blog by: Outside of the boot
By sheer audacity or great optimism, Napoli’s clash against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League’s group of death match was certainly dubbed as the match of the game week. And boy did it live up to its billing, however marred with controversies. The pragmatic vs. the visionary. As the two master tacticians went head to head for the first time, it was certainly a Rafa Benitez vs. Jürgen Klopp clash from the very beginning.

Both the teams lined up in their much fancied 4-2-3-1 formation. Miguel Britos was preferred over captain Paolo Cannavaro. Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga started in the wingback roles for the Partenopei, while Lorenzo Insigne was given the nod ahead of Goran Pandev. Jürgen Klopp, however, decided to go with Jakub Blaszczykowski’s experience on the wing over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s youthful, goal scoring exuberance. Kevin Grosskreutz started in right back in place of the injured Lukas Pizczeck.

Benitez’s philosophy and approach to the game

Well, what wasn’t surprising was the way Napoli came out of their strides. Lorenzo Insigne showed flashes of brilliance with quick feet, unsettling Dortmund’s right side and taking advantage of Grosskreutz’s sloppiness. Even though Dortmund’s midfield was advised to get close to Marek Hamsik, the Italian side’s two wing backs in Maggio and Zuniga gave the German side very little time on the ball (justified by Maggio’s heat map from the first half).

Christian Maggio: Action Heat Map via

However, the first real chance of the game fell to Robert Lewandowski, who found himself one-on-one with Reina, but the Spaniard won the duel with his left foot. Dortmund showed signs of coming back into the game with their own midfield finding space between the channels, but two minutes later, Napoli were ahead. Just shows why not taking your chances can be the difference on the night.

The first goal via poor marking from Dortmund

The poor marking that led to Napoli’s opener

There is always a saying in the coaching manuals of any manager to his striker, “Get rid of the centre backs and try to work spaces to contest with the full backs”. That’s exactly how Higuain’s opener came.

Mats Hummels was caught napping trying to mark Raul Albiol, who was quite inactive. Higuain lost Schmelzer and rose highest to a well worked out corner by Insigne and Zuniga to nod his team ahead, much to the joy of the home faithful.

There would be questions on why Klopp had handed the initiative to the home side by asking one of his full backs to mark the lone striker. But what followed next was out of the blue, Jürgen Klopp looking like a devil with his tummy empty, receiving a straight red for threatening the fourth official.

If that wasn’t enough, Roman Weidenfeller was shown a straight red as well for using his hands outside his area to deny Higuain in first-half added time.

Insigne and Zuniga take advantage of Grosskreutz playing out of Position

Much of the talk leading up to the game was regarding which team had the weaker defensive midfield. Inler and Behrami or Sahin and Bender? When I asked this to a friend of mine, he instantly tweeted, Insigne and Zuniga vs. Grosskreutz, that’s all. As it turned out, he couldn’t have been more right!

Juan Zuniga: Action Areas via

After the restart, there was only one way traffic if we look at the left side of the field. Insigne and Zuniga terrorised the 25 year old German, so much so that had Napoli not been so profligate in front of goal, Dortmund would have had a hiding. As can be seen from the action map, Zuniga, along with Insigne, pressed hard, meaning Bender and Sahin couldn’t move up front even with ten men. Mats Hummels was substituted in the break as he twisted his ankle, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came on, meaning Bender had to play centre back.

As a result, this led to a snowball effect. Marek Hamsik, with his probing forays, put off the defence much like Higuain, who had zipped past and cut across Subotic and Hummels in the first half with his intelligent movement off the ball.

Maggio had a great game personally coming up against Schmelzer, beating him time and again with his pace and his delightful understanding with Inler, who picked the Italian time and time again with his delightful diagonal balls from the centre of midfield(as shown in Tactics Board). Moreover, Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan having shockers helped the Partenopei cause.

The white ovals represent unmarked spaces which Napoli utilised to great effect. This will also give a fair bit of an understanding on how Napoli won the free kick and Insigne capped his first Champions League performance with an outstanding free kick. A 30 yard pile-driver beyond the helpless stand-in goalkeeper Langerak gave Napoli a 2-0 lead.

Dortmund try to come back with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as outlet

Dortmund came into the second half with Aubameyang in place of Hummels, thus shifting Bender to centre back alongside Subotic. The German made a couple of important headers, along with a fair number of clearances to retain possession and provide his team with Aubameyang as the outlet.

The Gabon international did manage to cut Zuniga later on in the game with his pace, but he was quite unlucky hitting the cross bar with a wonder strike.

Aubameyang Passes via

With a workhorse mentality, he had the Napoli defence holding its breath for quite some time in the latter half of the match, but with ten men, that’s always going to be difficult.

Indeed, he made Zuniga commit a silly error that gave Dortmund a glimpse of coming back, but Napoli held on for a famous victory that might just prove Rafa Benitez’s tactical acumen was perhaps the better of the two managers. For Dortmund, its back to square one and the tactical drawing board, while Napoli can rejoice their win over last year’s beaten finalists.


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