How Milan and Giroud used their heads to lead Napoli – before they fell

How Milan and Giroud used their heads to lead Napoli - before they fell

This year’s competition was competitive as Napoli and AC Milan drew 2-2 on Sunday.

It had almost everything: 94 minutes of end-to-end action between the two most recent Serie A winners, both better at attacking flanks than defending. Napoli came back from 2-0 down at half-time and almost won the game in the second half, despite central defender Nathan receiving an 89th-minute red card. And there were more combined shots (37) than throws (36).

Such a flurry of headers is his specialty – he ranks fourth in the all-time Premier League headers – but scoring two in the same game is rare.

It was the fifth time since the start of 2021-22 that a player has scored two headers in one Serie A game. It has only happened eight times in the Premier League and Champions League at the same time. Looking at data from his Montpellier era (2010-11), Giroud has only managed once before (Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Fulham in November 2012).

Milan enter the match week as one of only 3 teams in Europe’s top five leagues (along with Aston Villa and Burnley) yet to score or concede a header. Giroud, who turned 37 last month, was on an 11-game goal drought in Milan and France. His last goal came from the penalty spot in a 2-1 away win over Roma on 1 September.

Milan’s 4-0 win in this game last season was dominated by the left wing, especially Rafael León. The summer recruits, particularly winger Christian Pulisic and central midfielders Younes Musah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, have sought to evolve their right-back. The graphic below shows how rarely either wing was used last season.

Milan spent the first part of this season moving right-back Davide Calabria to midfield, adopting a 3-2 formation from the back and increasing the reach of the wingers, which resulted in a 5-1 Inter Milan derby defeat in September.

Stefano Pioli’s decision to keep Calabria wide on Sunday evening is likely to ensure that Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is covered. It would be dangerous to leave Napoleon’s left wing isolated and occupying the rear to exploit.

In possession, Milan Kvaratkhelia took advantage of a careless defense. Calabria’s forward line of balls and passes, as well as Moussa’s off-the-ball movement, were vital in creating improved crossing spaces on Napoli’s left.

Napoli Milan

This is evident in the first two minutes when Musah takes a high position in the half-space.


Without Kvaratkhelia down, Mario Rui has a dilemma – he can’t press Musa or Pulisic without freeing the other. Moussah receives Calabria’s pass, turns and shoots.

He was blocked but fell into the path of Giroud who curled his effort into the corner.

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Napoli’s 4-5-1 formation had problems with deep build-up play. Under Luciano Spalletti, Napoli won last season’s Scudetto as the best attacking team and frequently set up two centre-backs to close down the opposition’s 4-4-2, pushing the central midfielder forward.

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Flawless 4-3-3, short passing and constant high turnover – how Napoli won Serie A

At home to Milan, their deep line-up may be trying to encourage more space on the table to exploit, but No. 9 Giacomo Raspadori (in place of the injured Victor Osimhen) is often isolated and unable to do anything to defend Milan’s centre. They return from the development game.

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Raspadori, a No. 9 who likes to drop deep and connect play, was the wrong type of player for this opponent. Milan’s top line had a runner behind their defense – Osimhen’s profile – and it was something Paris Saint-Germain used in their 3-0 Champions League win a few days ago.

Napoli and Milan were linked tactically, both playing 4-3-3, so space and dominance could be achieved with wide rotations, but also with more ambitious centre-backs – which Fikayo Tomori did well. – Passes directly to No. 9, or large switches to exclude wings.

Here Calabria are given time and space and although Napoli have players covering passes to Milan’s central midfielders, Milan use smart movement to open up passing lanes forward. Moussah pulled wide and Giroud cut in, Calabria set up the ball for the USMNT international.

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It was Calabria’s run that allowed Tjani Riders Pulisic to separate him from Mario Rui, who pulled Kvaratkhelia deep in the build-up to the opener.

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Pioli wants to find several targets in the penalty area. “We need to fill the area more, yes, we are often going one-on-one on the wings and crossing more than last season,” Milan manager said pre-game. “We need to fill the position not only with midfielders but also with wide forwards.”

Here, we see this. Leo moves in to lock down the back post, Moussah pushes forward and Calabria stays in the area. Milan have four strikers against Napoli’s three defenders and it will be a collection of individual aerial strikes. Pulisic curled in a curling cross similar to Milan’s matchday opener against Bologna.

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Giroud found her and goalkeeper Alex Merrett couldn’t wait.

Napoli are a poor team in the air this season. Their overall headers have dropped from 54.5 per cent last season to 47.4 per cent – going from third to 14th in Serie A. Kim Min Jae’s move to Bayern Munich is a big part of that because he was the best box. Defensive, but head coach Rudy Garcia has struggled to find an established central defensive combination.

This was the third game in a row that Amir Rahmani and Nathan have started together, but Garcia has regularly switched four central defenders in his 13 appearances for Napoli in all competitions this season. Nathan has started eight times, Rahmani seven, Leo Östigard six and Juan Jesus five. Ostigård is not the best ball player but he is dominant and physical in the air, comfortable defending Giroud, but Garcia resists.

Instead of moving to a central midfielder, Napoli tried to install a 4-4-2, bringing in a ball-side winger. Milan’s response was straightforward, skipping the centre-back and going straight for a full-back who was now in space, just as they used Newcastle United’s narrow 4-3-3 press at the San Siro.

In the build-up to the second goal, Milan went straight from Maignan to Calabria, who made the play past the narrow Kvaratskelia to Pulisic.

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Pulisic came inside and gave the ball to Rejenders, who decided against a right-to-left attack and switched to the right, allowing Musah to run forward.

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Mario Rui competes well with Moussah but Calabria are in support and Kvaratkhelia (out of the shot) is surprisingly slow to follow.

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And when he entered the place, the Georgia international stopped. When Mario Rui tackled Moussah, Calabria ran onto the loose ball and slotted it past him for the first time.

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Once again Milan have four in the box. This time, left-back Theo Hernandez was at the back post but defensive midfielder Rad Krunic flashed in and was ready to score, only for Giroud to pounce. Rahman And go to the far corner.

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Milan could have been out of sight at half-time – Rangers put Hernandez’s cross over the bar and Giroud had another chance just before half-time.

Calabria again went down outside Kvaratkhelia and played a one-two with Pulisic.

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Milan attacked the box with four. Calabria crosses low, but Juan Jesus gets the first touch and is forced into a great curling volley that doesn’t trouble Giroud Merret.

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Milan let go of a two-goal lead to move up to second place and stay one point behind Inter.

Garcia’s three half-time substitutions – replacing Ostigard for Rahmani, Matias Oliveira for Mario Rui at left-back and midfielder Eljif Elmas for striker Giovani Simeone – left the game in turmoil at both ends of the pitch. The second of Napoli’s two goals in 13 minutes was a stunning free kick from Raspadori that quickly got the game back on track.

It ends Milan’s so-called ‘fire week’ after defeats against Juventus (1-0 loss), PSG (3-0 loss) and Napoli in eight days – but they continue to hold their own in Naples, now unbeaten in six straight. Tours, last lost in August 2018.

In the Champions League, Milan will need to repeat their first-half performance if they want to qualify for the knockout stages. Milan, who are in the same group as Newcastle, Borussia Dortmund and PSG, have just two points and have not scored a goal after three games.

The next two games at home to Udinese and PSG? Cross to Giroud, of course.

(Top photo: Evan Romano/Getty Images)