Walter Mazzarri Builds A Better Mousetrap With Napoli

FLORENCE, ITALY - FEBRUARY 17: Napoli head coach Walter Mazzarri shouts instructions to his players during the Serie A match between ACF Fiorentina and SSC Napoli at Stadio Artemio Franchi on February 17, 2012 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

Walter Mazzarri's Napoli look incredibly beatable whenever they take the field - but that's exactly what they want teams to think. Their supposedly top-class opponents are still taking the bait.

It was just after halftime at the Stadio San Paolo, and Gary Neville was perplexed. Chelsea FC, having gone ahead 1-0 against a Napoli team that seemed to be inviting their opponents to hand them a battering, had been rocked by two goals just before the interval, the first a fine curling effort from outside the area by Ezequiel Lavezzi and the second a stoppage time header courtesy of Uruguay international Edinson Cavani.

Against a strong team - Manchester City, say, or Bayern Munich - a sleepy Chelsea side conceding two goals before halftime would be a non story. Over the past two years, the Blues have dropped off significantly from their status as European powerhouses, and meltdowns have become a fact of life under the guidance of Andre Villas-Boas. But against Napoli? The former Manchester United right back was having none of it.

Neville grew increasingly agitated as the match went on, eventually reaching boiling point after a David Luiz error resulted in Lavezzi's second of the night, a goal that would eventually condemn the English visitors to a 3-1 defeat:

This will be the strangest one tonight because don’t think we’re watching a particularly great Napoli team, it’s not like the AC Milan team that played last week against Arsenal.

Napoli, it was said, were an elite front three and not a whole lot else. There's widespread respect in footballing circles for the merits of the like of Cavani, Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, but apart from the odd admirer of right back Christian Maggio, there's not much to wow you about Walter Mazzarri's team. Nor is their position in the league table - they're 5th in Serie A, having drawn as many games as they'd won.

Rumour has it that Chelsea share Neville's reservations about the potency of this Napoli team, and that they'd consider going out to the Partenopei enough of an embarrassment to excit Villas-Boas from his position should the Blues fail to make some sort of comeback in two weeks time. Napoli, it seems, are not a team that it is acceptable for the likes of Chelsea to lose to.

One the one hand, it's easy to understand why. Watching the team gives the distinct impression that they're about to fall apart at any give moment. The centre backs hardly inspire confidence, ranging from the probably competent Hugo Campagnaro to the walking calamity that is Salvatore Aronica. The midfield is marshalled by Gokhan Inler, a player who'd walk into plenty of teams, but he's supplemented by tiny Uruguayan Walter Gargano, a man who looks like he'd be outmuscled by a sickly chipmunk.

In short, the centre of the team looks only slightly more sturdy than Owen Hargreaves' hamstrings. Normally, you'd expect that to mean that Napoli lose, and lose a lot.

And yet, they don't. Let's look at their record against 'top' sides, which we'll define here to be teams that either made the Champions League knockout stages this season or who are in position to qualify for the Champions League next year. Napoli have played a total of eleven matches against seven such teams: AC Milan (2), Bayern Munich (2), Chelsea, Inter Milan (3), Juventus, Manchester City (2) and Udinese.

How did they do? Let's take a look.

Manchester City 1-1 Napoli
Napoli 3-1 AC Milan
Inter Milan 0-3 Napoli
Napoli 1-1 Bayern Munich
Napoli 2-0 Udinese
Bayern Munich 3-2 Napoli
Napoli 3-3 Juventus
Napoli 2-0 Inter Milan
AC Milan 0-0 Napoli
Napoli 3-1 Chelsea
Napoli 1-0 Inter Milan

Well that's actually quite good. Napoli have outscored their 'top' opponents 21-10 in those eleven matches, recording six wins, four draws and a solitary loss. That loss come in Germany at the Allianz Arena when Bayern Munich were at their peak of the powers this season (a victory, incidentally, that appears to have cost Bayern a consistently healthy Bastian Schweinsteiger).

Napoli are also one of three teams to have come away from the Etihad Stadium with a result, and the only one to do so in a tournament that Manchester City care about - then they dumped the Premier League leaders out at the San Paolo. They snapped Udinese's unbeaten run and are still the closest anyone's actually come to beating Juventus this season.

Clearly, despite their position in the table and the fact that they look incredibly beatable virtually all of the time, Napoli are not, by any means, easy prey. So what's going on here?

The first, most obvious point to make is that Mazzarri has quite a small squad, and as a result has a habit of resting regulars for smaller teams - that is, everyone in the league without much hope of getting into the Champions League next year. Napoli's depth isn't spectacular, and breaking up their attacking three makes for an occasionally underperforming team.

But that doesn't explain why the Paternopei look so vulnerable when they are playing their best team. It doesn't explain that for almost the entire second half against Chelsea they looked on the verge of capitulating to the Londoners - only to score themselves instead. In a half in which Neville praised the Premier League side as far superior, Napoli were the that was generating the clear cut-scoring chances.

It's well known that Mazzarri has built a counterattacking team. The counter is Napoli's primary offensive mode, with Gargano spraying balls to the flank, at which point that lethal front three comes into their own. But plenty of teams play on the counterattack - it's nothing special, even if the front line of Hamsik, Cavani and especially Lavezzi are immensely dangerous on the break. What makes Napoli special is they don't rely on teams needing to attack in order to spring the counter. Instead, they goad their opposition into it.

That cream puff centre turns out to be an elaborate trap. Napoli are nowhere near as defensively vulnerable as they look (although they're not world beaters, as Paolo Cannavaro's mistake against Chelsea proved), but their manic, scrambled clearances make it immediately to those watching that they'll fold if just a little more pressure is applied. Instead, what happens is that the more a team pushes, the better Napoli defend, with their players pushed tighter and tighter into a block around Morgan de Sanctis's goal.

And once they get pushed hard enough, the trap is sprung, the counterattack bursts into life, and everyone's left wondering where it all went wrong.

When Manchester City went to the San Paolo, they had no real reason to attack. The way that Group A was shaking out meant that Roberto Mancini's side would be in excellent shape to finish second with a draw, and Bayern's imperious form meant that first place was virtually out of the question. So what did they do? They attacked. Chelsea were down 2-1 at halftime a week ago, which is a reasonable score for the away leg of a European knockout match. There was no reason for Villas-Boas to push things. Then Napoli opened themselves up and, again, baited their opponent into doing something silly.

Virtually every good team playing against Napoli has bought into the idea that there are obvious weaknesses that they can exploit, and when that backfires they're left at rather a loss. Obviously, Napoli do have weaknesses (Real Madrid and Barcelona would probably have them for breakfast) but most of the obviously apparent ones are mirages designed to make teams do things that they really shouldn't.

Against sides that are already terrified of losing to the Partenopei - the Sienas and Novaras of the world - this is a less effective strategy, which is why you'll often see Napoli struggling to draws against teams that, given their record against the European giants, they should be dispatching easily. This is still a fairly young team, that's grown up around one trick, and they've yet to work out to deal with sides that simply won't play along.

In other words, Napoli are both far stronger than they look and far weaker than they by all rights should be. Is it any wonder that the British media finds them so confusing?

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