Napoli matched Liverpool’s intensity and preyed upon their weaknesses
Home side exploited space in behind full-backs to great effect
Jose Callejon of Napoli caused problems for Liverpool’s Andy Robertson. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Ils sont les meilleurs! In the buildup to this game Jürgen Klopp had been at pains to play down any suggestion Liverpool came to Naples with an air of wider destiny about them. The notion had been put to the manager that Liverpool are, in a snapshot, the best football team out there: convincing Champions League winners last season and five points clear in the Premier League.
Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day and for once Uefa’s cheese-laden anthem – the soundtrack down the years to so much autumn mediocrity – had seemed to strike the right note at the start of this thrillingly full-throttle Group E opener. Sie sind die Besten!
Well, not playing like this. At which point, enter the reality of Champions League football against the genuine club elite; of defending a title; and of an opponent with the capacity to seek out Liverpool’s own weak spots, in particular the space behind those rampaging full-backs.
At the end of this 2-0 victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s well-drilled team, the Stadio San Paolo produced a great barrelling wave of noise around its crumbling concrete tiers. The blue-shirted players fell to their knees, then went to applaud the curva sud like a team of trophy winners. Never mind the champion talk. Napoli had played entirely without fear from the start, a quality that is occasionally missing in some Premier League teams.
It should be said Liverpool will not face many better sides this season. But the ones they do will have been watching and taking notes. Napoli matched Liverpool’s intensity. But they also came for their tender spots. It seemed fitting the penalty that in effect decided this game should come from a foul (as seen by the referee: it was soft) by one of Liverpool’s full-backs.
It was Andrew Robertson who appeared to trip José Callejón as he skipped inside with 80 minutes gone and from the start Napoli had looked to play quick lateral passes into the spaces on those flanks, seeking the weakness that accompanies Liverpool’s great attacking strength. This is still essentially a team that tries to win by running forwards, by making the game happen in other spaces far from their own goal. There was an element of theatrics to the fall. But it had been coming, in a rollicking game of counterattack, of sudden yawning spaces and high-speed forward combinations.
From the start Liverpool were tested by a Napoli gameplan that involved breaking the press and springing forward in numbers. This will be the pattern now. Europe has had two years to study the way Klopp’s red machine operates.
For his part, Klopp had spoken about intensity rather than tactics before the game, with the suggestion Liverpool’s defeat here last season had been down to their own lack of vigour more than anything else. It is a variation on the old Alex Ferguson line: his teams were never beaten, they just ran out of time. Klopp also likes to suggest Liverpool’s winning or losing is a function of how correctly they can pitch their own level, from the controlled style of the more routine Premier League victories to the full face-melting fury press and counter-press.
Early on Liverpool were comfortable, right up until the first Napoli raid down the right side, Trent Alexander-Arnold paddling suddenly, stuck miles upfield as the blue shirts stormed into the space behind. Hirving Lozano ended up putting the ball in the net from an offside position after a fine double save from Adrián.
It is a huge strength that Liverpool’s full-backs go toe-to-toe. But Alexander-Arnold’s flank was overrun at times in the first half, the combination with Mohamed Salah as defensively secure as a beaded door curtain.
Liverpool’s hard-graft midfield chased and held Napoli but rarely found it easy to rest on the ball. In front of them the attacking three worked and shifted position, but Kalidou Koulibaly in particular produced a masterful display of one-on-one defending.
The spaces never quite seemed to open up. The blue shirts sat off their men, then pressed with a real mania. There were some poor decisions: Sadio Mané in particular waited an age as Salah surged through in space, then pushed him wide of goal with a heavy pass.
Napoli’s second goal came with the game falling apart slightly. Virgil van Dijk played a poor pass, Fernando Llorente took advantage and finished neatly. And perhaps Napoli did Liverpool a favour here. This is what happens to champions: their opponents come prepared.
Klopp will adapt. This is a Liverpool team built out of graft, out of players performing for the collective and refining their strengths. But the warning was there in Naples: nothing is ever fixed, nothing is ever done; just as Klopp is right to feel this team will always have to keep running to move forward. – Guardian