The Sarri Experiment – Napoli 4-3-3

This is a new piece written by guest author Ji-Sung Park from over at the SI forums.

Legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi:

When you see Sarri’s teams play, you know how they train,” Sacchi effused. “He is a genius. When I was technical director with the Italy youth teams, I always went to watch kids in Serie B, and I was already impressed by his Empoli. He looks after the players, they understand him.

Sarri has truly worked his way up, starting at non-league teams in Tuscany, to the Serie C2, Serie B and now a Champions League fixture with title ambitions.

Before going to Napoli he revolutionized the Empoli way of training by using drones during the training sessions. That way he saw the game from a bird’s eye view and were able to plug any leaks and tighten up the banks, much like we do with 2D view. His final season with Empoli only Chievo of the bottom half teams conceded less and they staved off relegation comfortably. At Napoli, with a lot more individual talent, he switched from a 4-3-1-2 with emphasis on defense to a more dominant and attacking 4-3-3. A chain-smoking, former banker, tracksuit manager who once called Roberto Mancini a finocchio. Let’s have a look at the real life Napoli and what makes them so good.

The tactic:

As of today, the Napoli setup looks like this, with and without the ball:

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Some key traits:

  • 59% possession on average for the 16/17 season
  • 87% pass accuracy
  • 94 goals scored in the league, 72 of those goals from 4 players; Insigne, Mertens, Callejon, Hamsik

Important: They do not have possession just for the sake of it. In some games against similar sized teams they had only 45% possession. A lot of teams in Italy will gladly defend and let the home side have the ball, so don’t get carried away by the impressive possession stats. It is not a tiki-taka style football. 

The idea of Sarri is that both CDs should be technically gifted, while still being physical and rough. Most of the time the buildup starts from Reina to Albiol, although at times Koulibaly will also launch from his position. The CDs will look for Jorginho, the deep-lying playmaker and from there the attacks will be launched. Jorginho does not sit in front of the defense and this is the key part that separates this 4-3-3 from a more traditional 4-1-2-2-1 that you’ll see other managers use today. He will however link up with Albiol/Kouli to allow that buildup play. Here are some heat maps of Jorginho (included Reina so you can see the direction of play):

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The left side of the team is the real creative force in this tactic. Ghoulam on the leftback is further up than his slightly more conservative counterpart in Hysaj. He links up with Hamsik and Insigne, both of these two gets in to the area a lot and get among the goals. IRL, Insigne is more of a wide playmaker without the constant cutting inside, but the FM role is so hard-coded that this role will only sabotage more than create. Below is a complete heat map from their latest game against Atalanta (3-1 win):

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Okay, I think you got it by now, let’s try to translate this into FM terms next.

The FM version of this tactic:

I started a save with only Serie A loaded and holidaying in between matches to speed things up. Retrained Mertens to a become a striker, other than that, zero man management. No pressers etc, just focus on getting 100% familiarity.

The hard part here is to achieve possession while being attacking. A very tricky task in both real life and FM. Kudos to the ME. You need to replicate the front three movement, you’ll need them and Hamsik to provide 75% of the goals, and there must be many goals. IRL, Napoli creates a lot from through balls and that can be hard to do in FM. 

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As you can see above I made two sets of TI’s to go with the tactic. Both of them will render a high d-line, but the attacking version will not yield a 55%+ possession. It will instead give the lethal attacking play you’re looking for, with quick combos from the midfield to the front 3. The default one is the ‘control’ setup, which has lower tempo, but still aggressive enough to create heaps of CCCs. I always start off with the control setup, but being an attacking side we will concede the odd goal from passes behind the defense; quick forwards can get some goals here. In that case I go for the attacking one, or against the more stubborn sides where more quick play is needed. In short, it is not uncommon for me to use both during the course of a match.

Roles/duties:

GK: Reina. I think you can use a SK on defend here, I found him to be all over the place tho. Standard GK with fewer risky passes. roll it out and distribute to center backs.
RB: Hysaj/Maggio. Stay wider and mark tighter.
CDR: Albiol, the defensive playmaker. Close down much less.
CDL: Kouli. Close down much less.
LB: Ghoulam/Rui. Slightly more advanced than Hysaj, I chose a WB for him on support. Stay wider, run wide with ball, mark tighter.

CMR: The Allan/Zielinski role. Mark tighter, more risky passes. I want him to look for Callejon/Mertens in space and also be able to defend. BBM makes sense, but I am open to suggestions.
CM: Jorginho/Diawara. Mark tighter. This role can also be deployed with a defensive duty, depending on the opposition. Diawara will be an absolute beast here over time.
CML: The Hamsik role. This role needs to be in or around the box, making deep runs and arriving late in the area. Mark tighter and more risky passes.

AMR: Callejon. We need him to be closer to the center forward, but also to fall back in to MR when defending. He must also offer movement off the ball, to draw out defenders. Tackle harder, mark tighter, sit narrower, roam.
ST: Mertens. I gave him a F9 role because it suits his attributes and it works well with the other two. When playing with Milik I go for a DLF(s). Tackle harder, mark tighter.
AML: Insigne. Like I mentioned, he is slightly more involved in the buildup and IRL he’s probably a playmaker. A playmaker role is far too passive for him, so we go with IF(a). He will not tuck in though. Mark tighter, tackle harder.

Notes: I use tighter marking because we need to win the ball back quickly and create transitions. The forward players also have harder tackling, this is because I want them to press more. The risky passes in midfield are entirely optional. I imagine getting a higher poss %, but you also need those killer balls and direct, forward passing in this setup. 

Let us begin with the heat maps, that way we can see if they line up like we should. From left to right, Insigne, Mertens, Callejon:

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Well this is promising! Looks like the little wizard Insigne is in love with the ball. There is more movement from Callejon and Mertens is where he should be.

Here is one concrete and recent example of mixing up the play, where we are up against a very defensive side (Atalanta). Their plan is to leave the possession to us, and go for counters where possible. This is an excellent opportunity to test both mentalities in one sitting:

Atalanta formation:

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We start off with control/lower tempo to probe things a bit. Here I snapped a SS from the match stats after the first 10 minutes:

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Our shot/shot on target ratio is rather bad, but we have managed to create two clear-cut chances (three by my standards). We could continue and see how it goes, or we could go for the attack. I choose the former and we will reassess at half time. We go 1-0 up through Insigne, but the overall shot/on target ratio is still bad. I change to attack/normal tempo at halftime and pay attention to what is going on, on the pitch. We grab the decisive goal through Insigne again after 67 minutes, this time from a transition. I maintain the attacking outlook throughout, but no more goals:

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Completely crazy, but still managed 4 CCCs against a very defensive team. I am pleased by this, although we should have scored more.

I had two very interesting games against Liverpool in the CL group stage. First one at Anfield I went full attack and we lost 5-3. In Naples things went differently:

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I went for a control/slower approach here and absolute crushed them. 8 CCCs. This game ended 5-4! Very weird result where we deserved to win at least 6-0. Still happy to win.

Pass combos against Torino (1-0 win):

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Not the best match stats for us this. Still with lots of clear-cut chances, two/thirds of our attempts are wide. We manage to win, but here I should have gone for the attacking outlook at halftime.

Defeats:

Bologna away; 1-2. Juventus away, 1-3. Liverpool way, 3-5 (!).

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I have had some matches were I didn’t want possession, I just wanted to win, and it has been by far the most pleasing to watch. Devastating football at times:

Destroying Inter 4-0 at home. Destroying Lazio away 0-4. RB Leipzig away 1-4.

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Look at this beautiful specimen:

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player stat callejon.png
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player stat hamsik.png
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3 thoughts on “The Sarri Experiment – Napoli 4-3-3”

  1. Hi, nice work! IRL Hamšík is moving to the left side very often and combines with Ghoulam and Insigne. Do you have any idea how to implement this movement? I tried move into channels, but without any real result.. I am also thinking about roaming playmaker role for Hamšík, but am afraid he will be to deep. What do you think? Thanks 😉

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