Two sides that have seen their seasons become intrinsically linked to one another are AC Milan and Napoli, as they will soon face each other for the third time in 16 days across Serie A and the Champions League.
Trailing the Partenopei by more than 20 points in Serie A, no one would have expected the Rossoneri to win the first two of a series of three games against the Serie A leaders. Their 4-0 victory at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona was as shocking as it was irrelevant in terms of its impact on the league table, but their narrow 1-0 win at the Stadio San Siro in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals left Napoli with the immense pressure of producing a comeback in the reverse fixture at home.
Luciano Spalletti‘s side had never reached this stage of the major European competition and their inexperience could have arguably taken its toll in allowing a clinical Diavolo side to snatch a victory despite conceding a number of clear-cut chances, but the absence of injured top scorer Victor Osimhen has also played a part, forcing Napoli to tweak the style of play that has seen them take both Serie A and the Champions League by storm this season.
In addition to boasting an impressive scoring average of 0.83 goals per game, having netted 25 goals from 30 appearances across all competition, the Nigerian forward is key to the whole tactical system, as his presence alone is enough to change the attitude of both his teammates and the opponents’ defence.
Why is Osimhen key to Napoli’s style of play?
The simultaneous absence of Osimhen and his back-up Giovanni Simeone in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals against Milan forced Spalletti to opt for a previously untested solution, with Eljif Elmas deployed in a false nine position, which made even more evident the qualities that the Nigerian striker brings to the table and that have made Napoli a deadly team, capable of scoring 66 goals from 30 Serie A games.
Elmas is certainly a decent passer and is able to connect with the players around him, while also making room for their runs forward with his smart movements, but this also resulted in a lack of presence inside the box that the Partenopei desperately require to get a reward from their possession.
This was clear from the opening seconds of the Stadio San Siro fixture, when the ball rolled across the face of the Milan goal without any Napoli player ready to fire it in, with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia eventually taking a shot when two Rossoneri defenders were already on the goal line to deny his attempt.
But besides being a clinical goalscorer, Osimhen has a clear influence on the behaviour of most of the other players on the pitch. Napoli are a team that love to retain possession and move the ball around in order to create gaps to exploit, but the former Lille forward also allows them to suddenly play direct balls towards him, helping the whole team to gain ground in a blink of an eye and forcing their opponents to make tiring runs behind.
This option is of paramount importance for the Azzurri, as a simple run forward from Osimhen has the effect of instantly lowering the whole opponents’ backline, generating spaces that the likes of Kvaratskhelia and Piotr Zielinski can occupy to support the attacks.
The striker’s physicality does the rest, as the Nigerian’s impressive ability to act as a pivot and retain the ball against almost any defender in the world is a constant worry that Napoli’s opponents have to deal with. Once he’s in possession, Osimhen also boasts his fair share of unpredictability; will he go for the goal or will he try to reach a teammate who has benefitted from his movement?
Is Osimhen’s return enough to defeat AC Milan?
It’s therefore clear that AC Milan should prepare themselves to face a totally different kind of threat at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, where Osimhen should be back in the starting XI after a cameo appearance against Hellas Verona on Saturday that included a shot blasted against the bar.
The main thing the Rossoneri should consider is that Osimhen’s presence will have at least one or two of their players constantly busy in keeping track of his movements and limiting his play, which means that both their full-backs and midfielders will have to provide the coverage needed in order to stop Kvaratskhelia and his teammates from taking advantage of the resulting spaces.
At the same time, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Milan are a lethal team on the counter, and as much as Napoli could pile pressure on them, a single precise ball into the gaps after recovery could result in a dangerous break from Rafael Leao or Brahim Diaz, further exposing the fragility of a defence deprived of the suspended Kim Min-Jae.
This is why, much more than anything else, Napoli will need to focus on being clinical in front of the goal, after remaining scoreless in three of their last four games in all competitions, two of which came against Milan. If they managed to muster a number of chances with Elmas as a false striker, it is fair to think they’ll create enough opportunities to pave the way for a potential comeback, but ultimately scoring will be the only thing able to force Milan out of a conservative approach, which could be key to give Napoli’s most creative players the freedom needed to find offensive sparks with regularity.