Gunners won't find Gli Azzurri easy targets at San Paolo
Background image: Mister No, CC BY 3.0
Arsenal fans are smiling after their 2-0 first-leg victory over Napoli at the Emirates. Some may think their ticket to the Europa League semifinal is punched. There are few fortresses in football more imposing than Stadio San Paolo, however. Optimism doesn't do well there.
Unai Emery's CV boasts three Europa League titles. He knows the deal. There is still work to do. Carlo Ancelotti's side should not be written off by any means. Their home form ranks among the best in Europe. The Gunners' eight-game winning streak at the Emirates is a run the Neopolitans tend to do before sipping their morning espresso. Over the last 31 games contested at the Stadio San Paolo (across all competitions), they’ve lost one in addition and drawn six for a 77% winning percentage.
Under current Chelsea boss, Maurizio Sarri, Napoli toyed with visitors like a chain-smoking cat with a mouse. Under former Blues boss, Ancelotti, not much has changed. The cat no longer has a fag hanging from its lower lip but it can do that trick with one eyebrow. Even Juventus find the going tough when they come south from Turin, although they eked out a 2-1 goal in a match that saw red cards issued to both sides.
Few teams walk away from the San Paolo without conceding a few goals. Arsenal can take heart from Genoa's visit 11 days ago. The Rossoblu somehow eked out a one-goal draw, levelling in first-half stoppage time after Stefano Sturaro was sent off on the half-hour and Dries Mertens gave Napoli the lead shortly thereafter. Despite those two recent blemishes on their home record, Napoli have scored at least three goals in ten home matches this term while keeping nine clean sheets.
How can Arsenal buck that trend? They can take heart from Napoli's recent travails. If Emery can convince his side Napoli aren't to be feared, that the Gunners can take the game to them, it will be on the home side to respond to the pressure.
Napoli enjoy themselves when opponents match their shape and tactics. Almost invariably, they prove the better side. Ancelotti sets his squad up in a good variation on the 4-4-2. The Partenopei do incredibly well against other teams using similar formations. When Parma and Roma played 4-3-3s, Ancelotti's men rang up four goals in each contest.
Napoli constructs their success through fluid movements. If the opponent overloads the defensive third, they struggle to break through. Torino and Genoa employed such tactics, each escaping with a draw. Empoli won at the Carlo Castellani playing five at the back. SPAL and Lazio found little joy in defeat but only lost by one-goal margins.
While Arsenal aren't a solid defensive team, Emery appreciates versatility in addition to flexibility. Players like Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles allow the gaffer to change tactics on the fly. He’s started the squad in three different formations this term. The 4-2-3-1 used in Monday’s 1-0 win at Watford proved laborious. Arsenal couldn't find their stride despite playing with a man advantage for 78 minutes.
The 3-4-3 that delivered a home win in the first leg will be anticipated but still more likely to find success. The three-man rearguard can quickly become five with the right wingbacks in place.
Alexandre Lacazette is fresh. The Frenchman can play alone at the top while a stacked midfield will make it difficult for Napoli to penetrate the final third. A solid, organised performance can get the job done.
Arsenal has already beaten Napoli. The Azzurri will be forced to push forward. Arsenal has the pace on the flanks to capitalise on the spaces left behind. At the very least, it will be interesting to see what the Gunners can do when they don't need to chase the tie.