Date:7th November 2012 at 12:45pm
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Louis van Gaal once said that “a system is a footballing philosophy; A system can depend on the players you have”.

Walter Mazzarri may have taken note. After cutting his top-level teeth at Livorno and Reggina, Mazzarri led Sampdoria into Europe, cup-finals and very high league positions. This led Napoli to take the chance on him back in the autumn of 2009. Although his first season was to steady the ship after Donadoni’s poor start, a sixth place finish was admirable.

But what was to follow was a blue-print which the whole of Europe must take note of; the resurgence of the 3-5-2. A theme through this entire piece is “flexibility”. Without flexibility, a team can become rigid, and therefore lose ideas. But not this team. With a solid, experienced defence; an industrious midfield and potent attack, Napoli and Mazzarri have created more than a team that has just experienced Champions League football; they’ve created a new style which has stark contrasts to the “typically Italian” catenaccio.

 The three-man defence:

With this particular system, experience can prove vital. Anticipating a dangerous ball or moving just five yards to the left, can be the fine line of either making the system look like clockwork, or conceding a goal. One thing Mazzarri has got at his disposal is strong, quick and clever defenders. With Paolo Cannavaro taking charge as the central centre-back, Hugo Campagnaro and Alessandro Gamberini provide bravery and support when countering an attack. Keeping a solid line and playing offside can be simpler compared to a four-man defence, but timing is all important. With the support of the midfield and wing-backs, a spare man will always be available in both an attacking and defensive sense.

This is fundamental to making the defence do its job efficiently. If a ball comes in from the right-wing, Gamberini will always be there to cover Cannavaro; in accordance, if the attack is down the left-wing, Campagnaro will have Cannavaro covering with Gamberini and Zuniga providing the extra insurance. With European teams usually packing midfields and playing one striker, this can make that striker very isolated and secluded; especially with crosses being dealt with by tall centre-halves and a commanding goalkeeper.

To counter this, the attacking team must provide runners from midfield to occupy the zones in which Campagnaro, Cannavaro and Gamberini take up. Pushing the two wing-backs, (Maggio and Zuniga) back also aides the defence as they will drop deeper. This in turn has a knock on with what Cannavaro instructs Campagnaro and Gamberini to do. In usual cases where Napoli have been penetrated, the defence drops as deep as the 18 yard line and this causes the offside trap to be easily broken and goals scored. This decision-making has caused Napoli to tempt teams to attack them as they drop deeper and deeper under pressure. This brings me onto the importance of the wing-backs.

The diagram on the right shows the average positions taken up by Napoli, when not in possession of the ball. Clearly, you can see the back-three go in tight, and one wing-back pushes in to create a back-four, whilst another pushes further forward to give Napoli an outlet ball, thus being the “spare-man”. The midfield trio also take up positions where they can press, but also be in positions to launch counter-attacks. The two attackers also split, and press the opposition player who is on the ball.

 Juan Zuniga & Christian Maggio – Unsung wing-backs

Having to defend and provide width in attack is the common traits needed with modern day wingers but also with wing-backs. A good engine is vital; Zuniga and Maggio have that. Being able to provide the width and beat a man, whilst also being the man to keep the defence balanced is a demanding job.

The importance of the wing-back cannot be underestimated. When switching the play, Napoli defenders and midfielders know Maggio and Zuniga will be at the by-line with chalk on their boots. Napoli also knows once Maggio and Zuniga have the ball, the opposition will try to block the cross in and get into a shape. But this is where the flexibility comes into play. Maggio and Zuniga can play it short to Inler, Behrami or Hamsik, and run in behind the opposition.

This optimises Napoli’s fundamental strength; they want to stretch you. And that is what the 3-5-2 does best. The wing-back is probably more important in the attacking phases of play over the defensive phase, as a central midfielder or the opposite wing-back can tuck-in and make a back-four. However, depending on the opposition, if a more defence-minded wing-back is needed, crosses into the box can be provided from deeper positions, and the front-three can provide the large part of the width.

 The engine room & extra men

The midfield is the area in which play must be kept ticking over. Midfielders can never be static and must always take up different positions to stop attacks, and create attacks. Napoli has this in abundance. With the passing range of Gokhan Inler, and the defensive ruggedness of Valon Behrami, Napoli has a basis for attack. Inler and Behrami complement each other very well, as both can do each other’s job, whilst also providing the extra body. Depending on how Napoli line up, these two will always be in tandem in the central midfield. If Hamsik is employed alongside them, each takes up positions where they can provide the pass to Hamsik to feed either Zuniga and Maggio on the flanks, or Cavani and Insigne to finish.

This isn’t always easy. Inler & Behrami often create three v two situations against the opposition. Often, 2 midfielders or attackers will press Inler and Behrami from feeding the attacking players, but Hamsik, or Zuniga, or Maggio will provide an extra man, and all of a sudden, with just 2 passes, Napoli take the oppositions midfield totally out of play, leaving the exposed oppositions defenders to panic in trying to track Cavani & Insigne. Napoli’s recruitment policy of signing central midfielders with just more than brute strength and fear factor provides them with elegance and guile.

If Inler or Behrami are not employed, Dzemailli or Donadel can come in and do the same job. However, the same principle will apply. Napoli will always aim to create triangles of play and play the ball around the opposition with ease. When coaching young midfielders, the emphasis on finding space and executing the pass can never be over-emphasised. Watching Napoli’s central midfielder’s shows why.

Finding a clever pocket of space between midfield and defence can provide a platform for attack yards from the opposition’s goal. In addition, having the willing runners to force defenders out of position can create the space to make a killer pass as easy as possible. In my opinion, Napoli does this best. As a central midfielder, pace isn’t as necessary as having the vision and technique, but when you have attackers who can run behind, across and through defenders, who needs pace?

 The trequartista – Marek Hamsik

Precision passing; excellence in technique; footballing intelligence; Marek Hamsik has it all. Often when opposition teams pack their midfield, finding space can become extremely difficult. The small gap between the defence and midfield can almost suffocate the creative players out of the game.

Coaching children how to find space can be difficult but coaching them to play the perfect pass can be more. But by emphasising the tactical points about space and what to expect from the opposition can provide a platform for the footballer to learn how to make the final pass easier. Marek Hamsik often starts in behind Cavani & Insigne, but also isn’t rare to be found alongside Inler and Behrami in central midfield. Hamsik keeps the team in games, simply through his vision and passing technique.

Like I said earlier, having the attackers running and creating space for the ball to be played in can help make it easier, but the passer of the ball also needs the space and execution to pull it off. What Marek Hamsik does so cleverly is utilise what he has around him. If faced towards his own goal, he will lay-off to Behrami or Inler and pick up a different position. If he is faced with his back towards the goal Napoli are attacking, he can lay it off for Zuniga or Maggio to cross in or cut-in.

But whatever it is, Hamsik creates himself the opportunity to allow himself to provide the passes. Almost everything comes through Hamsik. How? He becomes the spare man. He is always on the move, always wanting the ball. Napoli knows if Hamsik is given the ball, the next pass is always going to be an important one. However, the best aspect is his timed runs into the opposition’s penalty box.

Intelligence again plays a part, but he can often lay the ball off and then receive the next pass, and finish it with aplomb. But when receiving the ball back, he will often not overload the penalty box which is already full with Cavani and Insigne, but lurk on the edge of the penalty area. This means the oppositions centre-halves are pre-occupied, the midfielders are making sure any late runs from Inler or Behrami are stopped, allowing Hamsik to almost easily stroll into a position, receive the ball and finish.

As the diagram on the left shows, when in the attacking phase, Napoli have numbers in the box, as well as players ready to join the attacks. From the diagram, you can also see the pressure the opposing team is under, as all of their players are in their own half, defending. This means, that if they were to win the ball back, there would be no avenue for a ball to be released, and the attack will most certainly break down. Napoli use this high-pressing well, in both attacking and defending phases.

The potent finishers – Edinson Cavani & Lorenzo Insigne

Every team needs goal-scorers and when you have a three attacking players consisting of Cavani, Insigne and Hamsik, goals are never going to be short. As explained throughout, the players behind the strikers work hard and in motion which allows Cavani and Insigne to play to their strengths.

Strikers can often be static. Let their marker know they are not moving and almost lure them into a false sense of security. Once the attacking phase commences however, Cavani and Insigne ignite and begin to cause unrest amongst the defenders. This off the ball running, coupled with the runs and positions of their team-mates, can just force mistakes in the oppositions offside trap.

Cavani is known to bend his runs along the shoulders of the defenders, and with Insigne’s dribbling; this combination play can be simple yet very effective. The majority of the work is done by Napoli’s wing-backs and midfield, which makes the strikers’ jobs much easier. This is prominent in the entire way the Napoli machine works.

Having broken down the roles of the individuals in the team, it can be seen how each cog works in the full scale of things. Walter Mazzarri has made sure Napoli employ a short passing game, to compliment the individual instructions employed. Through playing short-passes, the pace is instantly quickened, thus allowing oppositions less time to get into a solid, formidable shape. Also, with short passing, the speed in which Napoli’s players pick up new positions means that opposition’s lines are broken quicker too.

In a practical situation, Napoli finds space fast. In coaching this system, it must be essential that the coach puts across the message of quick passing and movement. Over-practising this can  allow for the midfielders and attackers to be put in this situation where they are constantly looking for the ball, and often creating three v two situations against the opposition.

Keeping the opposition closing down the passes and space will only mean they fatigue as the game goes on. This is true with Napoli as their quick counter-attacking and changes in pace can be difficult to deal with. But what makes this system really stand out is the attractiveness of play.

Napoli entertains, and through this entertainment comes a renaissance of a system often utilised in the 1950s and 1960s. Learning different tactical systems and educating players only provides a footballer with a better tactical knowledge. But the most important thing it teaches a footballer is flexibility. And that is why Mazzarri’s Napoli will definitely be challenging for this years Scudetto.

Follow Aran Sohal on Twitter: @AranSohal