Having been soundly beaten 3-1 by Napoli in Italy under former manager Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea will have to come back from a two-goal first leg deficit at Stamford Bridge under the stewardship of caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo if they’re to have a shot at lifting the Champions League trophy so coveted by owner Roman Abramovich. It’s vital to understand how Napoli got their first leg lead and the tactical battles that may play out in the second leg at Stamford Bridge.
That Chelsea had 58% possession despite being thoroughly outplayed is indicative of the contrasting approaches both sides took to the game in Italy. The Italians lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, employing a compact back 3 and two wing-backs (Juan Camilo Zuniga and Christian Maggio). Marek Hamsik played behind the Napoli front two of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi and remained on the right side of the pitch. Lavezzi drifted to the left wing while Cavani lined up in a slightly more advanced position on the left. Chelsea chose not to lineup in their usual 4-3-3, opting instead to play Malouda on the left and Juan Mata as a trequartista behind Drogba, forming a 4-2-3-1. Daniel Sturridge played on the right while Raul Meireles and Ramires played as a double pivot in front of the back four. David Luiz and Gary Cahill lined up in the center of defense, with Ivanovic at right back and Bosingwa at left back (he was injured early on and replaced by Ashley Cole).
Unsurprisingly, Napoli were keen to get numbers behind the ball and defend from deep, allowing Chelsea time on the ball in midfield and then looking to counter quickly when they won back possession. When Chelsea were on the attack, the Napoli wing-backs dropped deep alongside the back 3 forming a five-man defensive line. The key tactical decision of the game revolved around Chelsea’s use of Ivanovic at right-back. The Serb pushed up into very advanced positions on the right wing to give Chelsea width while Daniel Sturridge drifted inside from the right. Because Napoli were effectively defending with five at the back, Lavezzi didn’t need to track the forward runs of Ivanovic and was able to sit in the pocket of space left by the Serb. When Napoli won possession they quickly hit diagonal balls into this space on the left flank for Lavezzi. Cavani stood in front of Chelsea’s right-sided centre-back Cahill, creating a 2 vs.1 situation for Napoli on the left side of the pitch and overloading Cahill. The quick counter attacks of Napoli were exceptional and Chelsea were fortunate not to concede more goals (Lavezzi missed a breakaway and Ashley Cole saved off the line). It’s no surprise that Napoli like to counter-attack and though they executed them brilliantly, it’s nonetheless shocking how ill-prepared Chelsea were set up to mitigate the dangerous counters. After taking an early lead through Mata, Chelsea should have been more cautious, particularly in terms of Ivanovic’s forward runs.
Needing at least two goals to win the tie, Chelsea will be forced to get numbers forward and chase the game. Unfortunately for the Blues, this plays directly into the hands of counter-attacking experts Napoli. The Italians will again be happy to play with a back five when out of possession, put numbers behind the ball, clog space in Chelsea’s attacking third and counter when the opportunity comes. Regardless of how Chelsea line up, it’s crucially important they remain patient, keep their shape at the back, and avoid attacking recklessly. An early Napoli goal will leave the Blues chasing 3 goals which will all but kill the tie off.
Interestingly, the back three formation with advanced wing backs employed by Napoli seems like a good option for Chelsea (with Chelsea’s wing backs playing much more advanced than Napoli’s). The Blues could start Luiz, Cahill and Ivanovic as a back three with Cole and Bosingwa playing as wing backs and providing Chelsea width. Essien and Ramires would line up as a double pivot in front of the back 3 while Mata could play the trequartista role behind a forward pairing of Sturridge and Drogba.
There appears to be several benefits to this formation. It would allow Cole and Bosingwa to get involved offensively in wide positions. If Napoli were to nick possession and spring a counter-attack by playing the ball wide to Lavezzi, Chelsea would still have threes centre-backs available to deal with Cavani and Lavezzi. If both Napoli forwards overloaded one side as they did in the first leg, Chelsea would still be able to defend a 2 vs.2 situation rather than forcing Cahill into a 1 vs.2 as was the case in Italy. Offensively, the formation would allow Sturridge to play more centrally in a two-forward system where he is more comfortable. Cole and Bosingwa would join the attack from wide, occupying Napoli’s wing backs. The Napoli back three would then be left to deal with Sturridge and Drogba as well as Mata in his advanced role. This would create a 3 v. 3 situation in the attacking third for Chelsea rather than the 2 v. 3 one we saw in the first leg when Drogba was the lone forward and Mata stood behind him.
The obvious issue with this formation is that Chelsea have always played with a back four in the Abramovic era and it’s no easy task to install a formation that players aren’t familiar with. The Blues’ chances of advancing in the competition depend on their ability to get forward and create scoring opportunities while mitigating the effectiveness of Napoli’s swift counters.
Abramovich’s desire to lift the Champions League trophy is no secret but given Chelsea’s unfavorable position following the first leg defeat coupled with their overall poor form this campaign, the Russian billionaire can’t be too confident that success is beckoning in Europe. Any chance the Blues have of advancing to the quarterfinals will come down to their ability to press the issue from an offensive point of view while reducing the effectiveness of the excellent duo of Lavezzi and Cavani. Quite a task for a caretaker manager in what will only be his third game in charge.