The two strongest teams in Group E of the Champions League looked to secure their places in the last sixteen at Anfield.
Napoli won their home game against Liverpool but have since hit terrible form, failing to win any of their last five games in Serie A, with Aurelio De Laurentiis punishing his players for their refusal to go in ritiro – the Italian practice of locking up the squad away from their families to train. Carlo Ancelotti opted for a 4-4-2 formation.
Napoli went after Liverpool from the start, pressing them high up the pitch with a man-orientated scheme. The forwards would step up to the centre-backs, Allan would move up to stop an easy pass into Fabinho and the wide midfielders were ready to rush out and close down the full-backs. Napoli rarely won the ball back in Liverpool’s half but they did make it difficult for them to play out from the back. As is typical for them, Liverpool’s centre-backs often looked to hit long balls in behind Napoli’s backline for their pacey forwards to run onto whenever the Italian side moved up to press them, but Napoli’s defensive line was well-drilled, dropping off quickly.
Napoli also played around Liverpool’s press well. Liverpool’s frontline would engage them high up the pitch however the backline generally remained calm, while Allan and Fabian Ruiz were often in space to receive the ball in midfield. Typically when Liverpool’s front three press the opposition backline, the midfielders will step up behind them and get tight to their opposite number, however Piotr Zielinski tucking in off the left and Dries Mertens dropping off in between the lines made Liverpool’s midfield trio wary of pushing up too high and leaving space behind them. On top of this, although not a particularly flashy player, Ruiz is excellent at keeping the ball under pressure, so even when Liverpool’s midfielders did get tight to him, this didn’t mean they would come away with the ball.
Napoli’s main attacking strategy was playing on the counter though. Hirving Lozano and Mertens would split wide when Liverpool came forward with the ball, positioning themselves on the outside of the Liverpool’s centre-backs in the space behind the full-backs. This meant that as soon as Napoli won the ball back they could hit it into the channels for their forwards to break.
Napoli took the lead with a long ball forward, Virgil van Dijk appearing to land awkwardly in an aerial challenge and Mertens taking advantage of the gap that left in the middle of Liverpool’s defence to sprint through on goal. You could criticise Andy Robertson and Dejan Lovren for the offside trap, yet this would be extremely harsh: Mertens timed his run perfectly, still had to pick out a superb finish from a difficult angle, and it’s frankly the risk you take playing with such a high line.
In the opening stages of the game Napoli switched between bouts of pressing and sitting back in their 4-4-2 shape, but having taken the lead, they seemed to be happier defending it than risking the search for a second. They still looked to counter, but the match quickly became a question of how Liverpool would break them down.
Liverpool did a better job of it than they did against Crystal Palace: they moved the ball quickly and looked to switch play from flank to flank rather than only searching for the long ball over the top. Napoli made it tough for them though, sitting in a compact, narrow shape, with a natural centre-back at right-back and a natural right-back at right midfield. Even in the opening stages of the match, Nikola Maksimovic would stay back with the centre-backs when Napoli attacked, ensuring they were at least three-vs-three against Liverpool’s forwards, while Giovanni Di Lorenzo would rarely venture too far forward.
Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah stayed wide early on, hoping to stretch the Napoli backline, but this died out fairly quickly once it became clear it wasn’t going to work. Flooding the centre with players, Napoli would encourage Liverpool to play the ball wide. Once it was there, the full-backs would come out to meet the wideman while the others would stay in the centre to defend crosses and the midfielders would plug the gap between the full-back and the rest of the defence. James Milner frequently tried to make runs to support the attack only to find Allan on hand to stop him.
Liverpool were moving the ball quickly from side to side yet still found it difficult to stretch Napoli. The away side were happy to just pull a lot of men back into defensive positions, filling any gaps that opened up and having so many players around the box that they were always the most likely to win the headers for any cross that Liverpool sent in.
In the second half, Liverpool brought some new ideas to the table though. Firstly, realising that the Napoli full-backs would follow them to a certain distance, the wingers would pull themselves deeper, dragging the full-backs up the pitch and creating space behind them for their teammates to exploit. Both Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly were live to the danger and would come across to close the space, but that meant dragging them away from their central positions that they really wanted to protect.
Secondly, in the 57th minute, Klopp introduced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Joe Gomez, switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation. This change enabled Liverpool to overload Napoli’s backline: Robertson and Jordan Henderson, replacing Gomez at right-back (with better crossing to boot), got high and wide to get the Napoli full-backs moving out to the touchline, while Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino could all focus on the centre, meaning that even when the Napoli midfielders dropped back, Liverpool could still find men in dangerous areas.
While the formation change did help Liverpool by dedicating an extra man to the attack, it was probably the personnel change that mattered more. Neither Milner nor Henderson are cloggers but they are the odd men out when put in with the likes of Mane, Salah and Firmino, whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain is a technically excellent player capable of running past defenders and playing quick one-twos with those attackers. To break down a solid defence like Napoli’s, Liverpool needed the type of player who could make snappy interchanges of passes in tight areas, and the addition of Oxlade-Chamberlain added another to combine with their frontmen.
Liverpool got their equaliser mid-way through the half from a corner, Lovren easily towering over a flat-footed Mertens to head home. Back on level terms, Liverpool switched backed to a 4-3-3. They continued to dominate possession but were nowhere near as aggressive in searching for a winner.
Napoli also seemed content with a draw, not changing from their strategy of trying to hit Liverpool on the counter. Throughout the match, Napoli looked to target Liverpool’s right side. They would hit a quick ball to a forward to lay off the ball for someone behind him. Without fail, Lovren would rush forward to close down the attacker each time, overcommiting so that he couldn’t quickly turn around, then have to rush back as the player who had received the ball aimed a pass into the space he left behind him, although thankfully his teammates were often on hand to cover.
Going into their final group game needing a result isn’t the ideal position to be in during a hectic schedule for Liverpool, but given Napoli are the toughest opponent in the group they can be happy with this match. Likewise Napoli can be happy with what was an excellent performance in a bad run of form.