Striker Gonzalo Higuain told reporters after the match, “Tonight we wanted to prove that this team has character.” And they did just that. Down a goal, Dries Mertens’ brace at the San Paolo inspired Napoli to defeat Sparta Prague 3-1 in the Europa League.
The pressure was on the Partenopei even before the match started, amid rumours of Rafael Benitez being sacked. Fan disapproval has reached at an all-time low with merely ten thousand home spectators reportedly present for the match.
However, Benitez’s side responded positively with an intense performance –reminding everyone of the audacious, lively Napoli side of last season. Their win can be attributed to: Marek Hamsik’s positioning, the double pivot keeping shape and defensive sturdiness.
Hamsik dropping into deeper positions
It is no surprise that Hamsik has not played to his best for the better part of a year. He had a strong start to last season, but then struggled with an injury and took a subsequent dip in form. Some questioned whether it was Benitez’s system causing the harm. Some argued it was down to his confidence.
Hamsik’s great performance against Sparta demonstrates that the midfielder’s problem lied in his positioning on the field. Under Benitez it seems the playmaker has played too high up the pitch. He becomes heavily marked and turns into a nonfactor. When Hamsik does receive the ball he has little time and space to operate effectively. Shut out of the game, Napoli suffer greatly without the 27-year-old’s presence. Inler is forced to dictate play and the side become predictable. Under former coach Walter Mazzarri, Hamsik sat behind the forwards and had space to play a killer ball as well as fire shots from just outside the box.
Against Sparta, the Napoli captain made a minor adjustment in dropping deeper to receive the ball. It worked wonders. The midfielder played excellent through balls and looked hungry throughout the entire match, while achieving 85 percent pass completion. He found teammates in dangerous areas and even side stepped a man or two.
This performance seems to have alleviated some pressure from Hamsik’s shoulders. Napoli have often been criticized for a lack of creativity at times and maneuvering with few ideas. If Hamsik can continue to find himself in good positions to carry the ball up the field, expect Napoli to fire at all cylinders once again.
Double pivot keeping its shape
Benitez opted to start Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano in the double pivot. This was a surprising move after reports claimed new signings Jonathan De Guzman and David Lopez were favoured instead.
With Hamsik dropping deeper to receive the ball, the midfield duo was content in not pushing up too far forward. After conceding, they stayed horizontal of each other and compacted the midfield. This left little space for the opposing side to form serious counterattacks. Holding their shape for long periods of the match also made it easier to dominate possession as it looked as though Napoli would be the only side to threaten on goal.
Inler boasted 91 percent pass completion as he continually found Hamsik in space with room to burst forward. Although Gargano had a forgettable first half, he improved in the second. He helped to calm Napoli’s play in the latter stages of the match. He also had a few dangerous shots on goal throughout the entire 90 minutes. Overall, it was a good tactical performance from the double pivot.
Barring a few scares by Miguel Britos, no major errors were made by a usually shaky Napoli defence. Britos slid in for the injured Faouzi Ghoulam while Henrique was preferred to Juan Zuinga. Both fullbacks were not involved much in the attack early on, but that changed in the second half.
Kalidou Koulibaly demonstrated his worth once again from another solid defensive display. The 23-year-old has wasted no time to gel with his new club. The centre-back partnership between Koulibaly and Raul Albiol seems to be forming nicely – Federico Fernandez’s departure assuages some uncertainty in defence. With more experience playing alongside each other, Napoli can hope to absolve their defensive woes.
Napoli travel away to Udinese this weekend in what will prove to be a difficult match. Disgruntled fans should look to the positives displayed against Sparta as the Partenopei are slowly turning the disappointing pages of their season. A crucial win in Udine will do just that.