Napoli tactics: The Italian Rafalution

August 10, 2013

What can we expect from Rafa Benítez’s side this season? 

Arsenal 2-2 Napoli

If Walter Mazzarri’s counter-attacking 3-5-2 system exuded boldness and innovation, Rafa Benítez’s arrival signals a return to more ordinary tactics. At the 2013 Emirates Cup, Napoli’s first team played a balanced but stale 4-2-3-1 system displaying the best and worst of Benítez the tactician. Do not expect a vibrant and radical ‘Revolution’. This will be ‘Rafalution’.

And why not. Benítez has stayed true to 4-2-3-1 since managing Valencia. With Marek Hamšík at hand, excluding an attacking midfield role would be criminal. The lone striker role suits Gonzalo Higuaín. And with everything to prove in Italy, experimenting with a three-man defence now wouldn’t be Rafa’s smartest move.

Arsenal 2-2 Napoli

Napoli’s two matches at the Emirates Cup were covered in pre-season rustiness. Only one gave indications of Rafa’s preferred tactics. In the first showdown, against Arsenal, he fielded what appears to be his strongest line-up – perhaps excepting the omission of Christian Maggio.

Graph 1

Napoli’s line-up against Arsenal

Some tendencies stood out. The attacking midfield trio – Lorenzo Insigne, Hamšík, José Callejón – rotated often. Yet the most effective combination was the one that started. Hamšík’s importance quickly became apparent. As Napoli supporters will know, the clever Slovak is incredibly gifted, and he orchestrated the best moves. Once he swapped positions with Insigne or Callejón, Napoli looked less dangerous.

Hamšík’s creativity shines even brighter in the presence of the two holding midfielders. Swiss duo Gökhan Inler (who was excellent) and Valon Behrami are solid, hard-working ball-winners; but while they possess some attacking qualities too, they rarely ventured forward. Benítez prefers his central midfielders to hold back and provide ‘balance’. If Hamšík moves wide, Napoli lack creativity centrally – a crucial component in any team.

Graph 2

Napoli’s second goal came after Hamšík received the ball in classic No10 territory. As for the wingers – Insigne and Callejón – they started runs in behind the opponent’s full-back and centre-back once Inler og Behrami were in possession. The instruction wasn’t rocked science from Rafa but it was understandable; the duo are extremely lively and accelerate quickly.

Also notable was Napoli’s counter-attacking. They took every opportunity and looked dangerous. This isn’t a typical Rafa trait. However, the Spaniard may want to build on Mazzarri’s work. Considering how well it has served Napoli in recent years, some may say it would be foolish not to. The approach may also complement Rafa’s own tactical strengths: defending, organisation and condensing space. And in truth, Napoli do not have the Xaviesta-ish central midfielders to make possession play a regular strategy anyway.

One weakness on show was Insigne’s unwillingness to track back. Kieran Gibbs frequently stormed past him on the outside left and caused Napoli trouble. If this becomes a reoccurring problem, Rafa may opt to shuffle the agile Behrami towards whichever full-back goes free; much like José Mourinho did with Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid to cover for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Napoli 1-3 Porto

The second game provided less insight. Rafa changed nine players – keeping Goran Pandev and Callejón – and since systems depend on personnel, clues were rare. Napoli were sterile and unimaginative; the counter-attacks were lacklustre, deliveries were poor, and few players stood out.

Graph 3

Napoli’s line-up against Porto

One interesting aspect, however, was the 4-4-2 formation. Why did Rafa play it? There are two explanations. Since Hamšík is Rafa’s only suitable playmaker, playing an attacking midfield role without him seemed pointless. On the other hand; Rafa may be planning for a second striker, with Napoli recently linked with Jackson Martínez and Alessandro Matri.

The Hamšík question

So the discussion. Having cost £35m, Higuaín will surely play. So will most likely a potential new signing. Knowing Rafa favours a four-man defence with two holding midfielders, the only tactical option is 4-4-2. More evidence of this appeared later. When entering, Hamšík took a central midfield position. The 4-4-2 remained. Clearly, this is Rafa’s way of shoehorning his best players into one line-up. Yet against Porto Hamšík’s influence was woefully diminished, and the role appeared to waste his talent.

More generally, Napoli looked poor in 4-4-2, albeit with the best players benched. Both forwards sprinted off into space, with none coming deep, practically eliminating Napoli’s link-up play between the lines. Balls over the top created the chances. This will surely not change; neither Higuaín nor Matri are renowned for their combinations with deep midfielders.

On the evidence displayed at the Emirates Cup, Napoli would better suit a 4-2-3-1 system. Benítez understands the No10 role better than most managers, and attacking midfielders have always thrived under him – with Pablo Aimar (Valencia), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) and Juan Mata (Chelsea) all glittering. Hamšík should thrive as well, but his season hinges on whether Rafa prioritises building the team round his best player.


In Hamšik’s absence, which everybody’s hoping to be never, or rather rare, Rafa could use something which is 4-4-2, or more likely 4-2-2-2, which Ancelotti used in his championship winning PSG side last season. With two strong holding/ball winning MF’s, and quick, flair wings, and two great ST’s (Higuain, Matri? ) this system has every chance to be great back-up plan…

On the other hand, I’m very pesimistic about Maggio playing RB, his defensive flawes makes him a weak spot in defensive four, so clearly seen in Italian national side, where Abate plays that RB role every time when Prandelli uses 4 players in defense…

by Josip on August 11, 2013 at 11:35 pm. #

I would be skeptical to a 4-4-2 considering this is Serie A, where so many teams overload the central midfield area. A Brazil-style 4-2-2-2, however, could work better, with Inler and Behrami holding and two attacking midfielders – one being Insigne – drifting behind a front two. It would be an option, though Rafa may find it a tad too adventurous.

Such a system would also work well with Armero and Maggio as full-backs. However, as you say, Maggio may not be ideal for that role, and both against Arsenal and later last week against Benfica, when Rafa fielded his strongest side, Maggio was not involved.

by Thore Haugstad on August 12, 2013 at 6:26 am. #

My thought’s are very similar, I expect Insigne to shine and prove himself as one of the best young players in italy! And I do think that Hamšik is probably the best #10 in Peninsula today, great player!

by Josip on August 12, 2013 at 7:41 pm. #

How do you think Mertens would work as a CAM? He seems fairly suited to that role. Or perhaps, in a 4-4-2, Insigne would work better as one of the two. He’s the kind of player who would drop deep and create play, while his work rate wouldnt be as much as a liability as if he had played on the wing.

by firretupalopa on August 11, 2013 at 2:58 pm. #

I agree that Insigne would work well behind the striker. From what I saw of Mertens (90 min), he struggled quite a lot on the left; not quick or strong enough to go past his full-back (Fucile). Perhaps he would be better centrally, but it would be slightly strange to move him there considering the classical winger type he is.

Either way, the problem with both solutions is that Hamšík would play deeper – and that’s a criminal waste of his talent. If you possess a genius, you play him in his best position.

by Thore Haugstad on August 12, 2013 at 6:21 am. #

Yeah, I was thinking that with Rafa’s rotation, they would have to find another player to step into Hamsiks role once in a while.

by firretupalopa on August 13, 2013 at 8:35 pm. #

Great work as always.

One small thing however on “Also notable was Napoli’s counter-attacking. They took every opportunity and looked dangerous. This isn’t a typical Rafa trait.”

It’s not necessarily a big part of Benitez’s style but his teams do frequently look to counter-attack, particularly when defending corners. It’s one of the things that makes Pepe Reina so important to his teams, as he was so good at distributing the ball quickly when needed.

I can’t really think of many off the top of my head, but I seem to remember quite a few of Robbie Keane’s goals came from this, and his goal against Bolton was one of the better examples.

by Josh on August 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm. #

True. I think the difference is the types of counter-attacks. The ones you mention often came whenever Reina had the ball. Rafa took advantage of his excellent distribution. Napoli’s counters at the Emirates Cup happened after they won possession deep inside their own half. They then worked their way forward with four or five quick passes.

I cannot remember that happening often at Liverpool. There would be the occasional long pass towards Fernando Torres, but nothing like what Napoli did last week.

by Thore Haugstad on August 11, 2013 at 9:18 am. #

I’d definitely agree with that.

by Josh on August 12, 2013 at 12:04 am. #