Napoli endured a tough spell in October and the first part of November but has now really started to hit their stride in the Serie A. Maurizio Sarri’s team are up to third and are only a point behind Roma in second. Against Sinisa Mihajlovic’ Torino, two of the top four goalscoring teams in Italy, Napoli won 5-3 but the score flatter Torino in truth, as Napoli were dominant and should have by more.

Dries Mertens – false nine

Sarri continues to use his fluid 4-3-3 that we saw last year. The big difference from now to then, especially after Arkadiusz Milik’s injury, is that the classic centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain has been replaced by the short and slight Dries Mertens. Higuain is heavily missed at San Paolo, of course, but in the last month Napoli has really figured out how to play with Mertens as their number nine and the result has been splendid, fluid and rapid attacking football.  Mertens start centrally up front in a false nine role where he spearheads the attack but consistently drop off from the opposition centre backs to create space for himself to get the ball to feet and then for others to run into the space he’s vacated.

Here we see Mertens position. Insigne on the ball and Mertens is dropping off from Torino’s centre back Emiliano Moretti.

Hamsik gets the ball in midfield and Mertens is making a move towards the Slovakian to receive a pass to feet.

One of the most important mechanisms in an attacking setup with a false nine is the movement from other players in relation to Mertens’. Here Mertens come short again with Insigne on the ball, but centre midfielder Piotr Zielinski makes a great run into the vacated space behind Torino’s defensive line. The ball is still played to Mertens, but Zielinski’s run stretched Torino.

This is five second after the previous image. Mertens received from Insigne and passed to Callejon before continuing his run as you see above. Callejon goes for a shot, but could easily have slipped in the ball to Mertens. The shot will be parried by Joe Hart…
… but Mertens gets his reward as the rebound comes straight to him and he scores his third after seeing his initial attempt blocked.

The Belgian highlighted excellent understanding of the game too with his movement. This is a counter-attack with Insigne on the ball. Mertens makes a diagonal run which brings the full-back Barreca with him. A big space opens up for Callejon where Insigne can play the pass.
This is the position the Spanish forward finds him in, but he tries to beat Barreca who wins the ball. Another play which highlights Mertens effectiveness up front due to his clever movement.

Here, Mertens has dropped off to get on the ball with centre back (!) Vlad Chiriches filling the centre-forward position.
Mertens beats his opponent and feeds Callejon.
Callejon then plays a perfect pass into the path of the Romanian defender who scores Napoli’s fourth.

Mertens scored four in the game, but also impressed with his playmaking abilities as we saw above. Here, Hamsik attacks the space vacated by Mertens and receives a perfect pass from the Belgian but Hart saved from the Slovakian.

The evolution of Dries Mertens from inconsistent winger to deadly forward is quite incredible. He was a fringe player last year but due to Milik’s injury and Manolo Gabbiadini’s struggles to fill the void up front, Mertens has stepped up and is currently playing the best football in his career. He’s got 10 goals in 15 Serie A appearances of which only nine were starts, and six in the last two games alone. Mertens brings a movement to the Napoli attack which makes them really difficult to defend against.

Free men between the lines

Sarri set his team up to exploit the space Torino’s midfield left in front of their defence as they tried to press Napoli’s midfield three of Jorginho, Zielinski and Hamsik high. This opened up large spaces behind them which Insigne, Mertens and Callejon capitalised on.

Here’s Napoli’s attacking shape. Width provided by the full backs with Insigne and Callejon playing centrally in proximity to Mertens. With blue lines under them are the three midfield players.

Napoli’s build up started from Reina with the two centre backs splitting and Jorginho trying to get on the ball. Already here we can see the man-oriented pressing from Torino towards Napoli’s midfielders (in red).

And again. Albiol and Chiriches start the attack with Jorginho the deepest midfielder. Highlighted in blue are the two full back’s, Elseid Hysaj on the right and Faouzi Ghoulam on the left. They would often balance each other, meaning the full back on the ball-side would push up and the other staying deeper. Here we see Ghoulam pushing on with Hysaj staying deeper.

Full backs highlighted again and Insigne (in red) playing centrally behind Torino’s midfield.

Another example of Torino’s midfield quite high in their positioning leaving a large space for the three Napoli attackers to exploit.

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Albiol plays a pass through to Insigne who immediately turns to attack Torino…
… Insigne’s pass was a little hard which meant Mertens couldn’t reach it but the forward thinking of Sarri’s men is evident. In two passes they’ve beaten ten men and split both the midfield and the defence. This is a trademark of Napoli under Sarri, they are very vertically focused and seeks a direct route to goal, but do so through excellent ball circulation and passing.

Albiol again with a great pass in Napoli’s build up. Hamsik has found the space this time and can turn to go forward.

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This time Callejon and Insigne finds space and Jorginho plays it in for the Spaniard, beating five Torino midfielders in the process.

One of the rare occasions when both full backs attack. Insigne and Callejon are central with access to either half-space. Ghoulam and Hysaj push on to stretch the Torino defence.

Zielinski finds Insigne centrally. Look at that space. On this occasion Insigne decides to use the wide run of Hysaj on the right to break through the away side.
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Unfortunately the Albanian couldn’t reach Mertens in the box. The play highlighted Napoli’s ability not only to break through centrally, but also with their wide play. This combination makes them an increasingly difficult team to defend against, and it shows with Napoli the top scorers in Italy with 37 goals.

Napoli has hit top form and has scored 13 goals in their last three league games. They’re now a point of second place Roma and eight behind Juventus. Sarri’s men play the best attacking football in Italy and with rumours about players coming in January as well as the return from injury by Milik means Napoli will surely push on for the remainder of the season. Juventus beware.

Giro d’Italia

Juventus won the top of the table clash with Roma on Saturday thanks to Gonzalo Higuain’s superb winner in the 14th minute. Juve controlled large parts of the game, but Roma had some chances as well. In the end Juve were deserved winner, and will be top come Christmas, giving them a perfect platform for the second half of the season.

Empoli earned a big win against Cagliari on Saturday, thanks to the combination of Guido Marilungo and Levan Mchedlidze. The Georgian scored twice, both assisted by Marilungo as two players who had rarely featured previously combined to give Empoli a massively important win against a bottom rival.

Atalanta’s superb season looked likely to become heavily disrupted following defeats to Juventus and Udinese when they travelled to San Siro on Saturday night. However, Gasperini’s young team showed that they are for real by holding Milan to a 0-0 draw. Atalanta had a big chance to win it at the end on the counter-attack, but a draw was a fair result in a great game. Montella’s Milan dropped to fifth following this draw and last rounds loss to Roma, but still look well equipped for the rest of the campaign.

Lazio heaped pressure on Fiorentina on Sunday night as they won a feisty game 3-1. Baldé Keita opened the scoring before Lucas Biglia added a second in first half stoppage time from the penalty spot. Biglia was later culpable as he fouled Sebastian Cristoforo which gave Josip Ilicic a chance to pull one back for La Viola. Federico Marchetti saved a weak effort from the Slovenian though, and despite Fiorentina dominating the second half and creating plenty of chances, only former Lazio man Mauro Zarate found a goal for the visitors. Senad Lulic clinched the win on the counter-attack to make it 3-1. Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio are really good, I keep saying it, and they continue to do well.

Chievo at the Bentegodi is one of the toughest games in Italy, perhaps Europe, when they are on form and Sampdoria found this out on when goals from Riccardo Meggiorini and Sergio Pellissier proved enough to earn the home side a 2-1 win despite Patrick Schicks late consolation goal.

Udinese under Luigi Del Neri is now up to eleventh following a 2-0 home win over Crotone. Cyril Thereau’s excellent form continues and he got two for Udine to bring his season tally to eight in the league. Crotone need more points, but there’s no harm in losing to an in-form Udinese away from home.

Pescara, however, are desperately poor. An out of sorts Bologna came to the Stadio Adriatico and won comfortably, 3-0. A first half sending off didn’t help Massimo Oddo’s side, but they were already behind because of Adam Masina’s goal when Valerio Verre saw red. Blerim Dzemaili and Ladislav Krejci added further damage to Pescara as Bologna climbed away from the danger zone. Pescara, as brilliant as they are to watch at times, looks certain to go down.

Palermo has also been seen as certainties to leave Serie A in May, but maybe there is still life in them.3-1 down at Genoa with 20 minutes to go, it would be excused to think Genoa would see that one out. But Genoa are a sometimes chaotic side, and Palermo came from behind to turn the game into a stunning 4-3 win after Edoardo Goldaniga, Andrea Rispoli and Aleksander Trajkovski won it for the Sicilians. Giovanni Simeone had scored twice in the first half either side of a Robin Quaison strike for Palermo before Simeone set up Nikola Ninkovic for Genoa’s third. The loss represented the consistency issue at Genoa, who beat Fiorentina on Thursday, keeping a clean sheet, before now conceding four against a Palermo who came on the back of nine successive defeats.

Maybe Stefano Pioli has stabilised Inter? It surely looks that way on the back of a solid 1-0 away win at Sassuolo. Antonio Candreva scored the winner early in the second half as Inter made it back to back victories under Pioli. One more game remains before almost two weeks of tactical work on the training ground ahead of the restart. Maybe they will be okay in end, but Europe still looks a long way out. Sassuolo’s injury crisis sees them sink in the table, but they will stay up. It was refreshing to see their three man Italian midfield of the lovely regista Stefano Sensi, the next big thing Lorenzo Pellegrini and young Luca Mazzitelli. If they can get players fit then they will be fine and the future looks bright.

Player of the week

Dries Mertens scored four goals and created four chances for his teammates. He’s in superb form at the moment.

Coach of the week

Luigi Del Neri’s excellent work at Udinese continues and he oversaw another victory over Crotone. Udinese are now safe and looking upwards.

Goal of the week

Dries Mertens exquisite chip to make it four for him and five for Napoli was something else.

Empoli-Cagliari 2-0
AC Milan-Atalanta 0-0
Juventus-Roma 1-0
Sassuolo-Inter 0-1
Napoli-Torino 5-3
Chievo-Sampdoria 2-1
Udinese-Crotone 2-0
Pescara-Bologna 0-3
Genoa-Palermo 3-4
Lazio-Fiorentina 3-1