Tomorrow's Deby del Sole, the 157th official rendition, will feature two sides seemingly heading in opposite directions. As we discussed earlier today, Napoli hit a bit of a rough patch in October. While they're not necessarily in free fall, Carlo Ancelotti's crew has won only three of their past eight competitions dating back to their 1-0 loss to Cagliari in late September. Roma, meanwhile, have righted their ship, winning three of their past five matches, defeating injuries and referees along the way.
It's only the first of November, so there are still many, many miles left in the Serie A marathon, but this fixture looks a lot different than we imagined when the schedules were released in August.
And much like a cornered animal, Napoli should be desperate for a victory tomorrow and will likely pull out all the stops when they come to the Olimpico. Which begs the question: how can Roma resist this force?
Winning a football match is never an easy feat, but here are three keys to victory in tomorrow's Derby del Sole
#1: Keep Arkadiusz Milik Out of the Middle
The 25-year-old striker has had a bit of an up and down career thus far, being waylaid by injuries since coming to Napoli, but his 17 goal campaign last year seemed to portend big things for '19-’20. That was, until, he missed the first month of the season with a groin injury.
However, since returning from that malady, Milik has hit the ground running, scoring five goals in his past four matches in all competitions for club and country. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Milik has gone back to basics: feasting on opponents inside the area.
Three of Milik's four goals have come within the six-yard box, as have 16 of his 20 attempts on goal. In total, Milik has put 50% of his shots on target and has converted 18% of his in-the-box attempts into goals. What’s more, half of his key passes have come within the 18-yard-box too. None of this is paradigm shifting, but Milik is getting into high percentage scoring/shot zones and creating havoc in the form of on-target attempts, key passes and, of course, goals.
Listen, this isn’t rocket science. Most strikers butter their bread in the middle of the penalty area, so denying them that opportunity is simply Football 101, but Milik is playing so effectively and so efficiently lately that Roma would be wise to spend some extra time in the film room.
In order to prevent Milik from making hay in the middle, the onus falls squarely on Chris Smalling and, very likely, Mert Cetin. With Federico Fazio suspended and Gianluca Mancini likely to play in the double pivot, Roma's newest (and arguably most athletic) central pairing will have to keep a body on Milik at all times. Smalling has the height and speed advantage over Milik, but with Cetin very likely to earn his first start, Milik may be able to take advantage of that unfamiliarity.
Milik has averaged 46 touches and 6.5 shots over his past two matches, a span in which he's scored twice and hit the woodwork twice more, so he is making incredibly efficient use of his touches. So whether they man-mark him or use some sort of malleable zone approach, Roma have to give 100% of their attention to Milik 100% of the time.
If Cetin wants to make a name for himself early in his Roma tenure, putting the clampdown on Milik is the perfect opportunity.
#2: Defend Down the Right Flank
Milik is Napoli's hottest player at the moment, making his money in the penalty area, but that doesn't mean he is option A-Z for the Partenopei. While Napoli are a balanced team capable of beating you through Milik in the middle, or with Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens out wide, through the first 10 rounds of play, they've been a left-leaning team.
With 37% of their attacks coming through their left flank, producing 23% of their total shots, the right side of Roma's defense will be on high alert tomorrow. All of which makes the recent Alessandro Florenzi playing time controversy even more, well, controversial.
Florenzi has suddenly found himself on the outside looking in, totaling only 18 minutes in his past two appearances, losing playing time to Leonardo Spinazzola and even Davide Santon in recent weeks. While Fonseca cautioned us not to read anything into this, it's hard not to be curious—Florenzi the fullback is not without his detractors; vocal ones at that.
We mention this simply because Spinazzola pulled up lame against Milan, asking to be subbed off in the 77th minute, and didn't feature at all against Udinese. Spinazzola isn't exactly the second coming of Roberto Carlos, but he's a better defensive fit than Florenzi at the moment, so if he's not fit to go, a tough task becomes almost impossible.
Reining in the left-side of Napoli's attack (predominantly Milik and Insigne) is no small task, and whether it's a hobbled Spinazzola, a rusty Florenzi or (gulp) Santon, Roma's greatest weakness could play right into Napoli's biggest strength.
So, whether he overloads that side or presses even higher up the pitch, Fonseca has to figure out how to cut off that pipeline.
#3: Win the Possession Battle
With the league's highest possession rate (57%) and the second best passing percentage (86.9%), Napoli has mastered possession-based football. Through 10 matches, Napoli are averaging 527 short passes per match, nearly 200 more attempts than their opponents, and are hitting on nearly 90% of those short passes. All told, 30% of Napoli's possession occurs in their opponents final third, which has, in part, led to 13 goals in the run of play—the league's third-highest mark.
Roma will never be able to completely stop that, particularly when they have a center back playing midfield, but if they can mitigate that somehow, be it through pressing higher up the pitch or changing shape in defense to jam the middle, they'll have a better chance at addressing our first two points.
It will take a herculean effort from Jordan Veretout and Gianluca Mancini in the pivot, as well as a healthy does of back-tracking from Edin Dzeko, Justin Kluivert and Nicolo Zaniolo, but if Roma can at least force Napoli's midfielders into some hasty mistakes, they can disrupt their rhythm and hopefully generate some buzz on the counter attack.
Defeating Napoli is never easy—Roma have won only two of the past six—but if they can even manage to master one of these three points, the odds should be in their favor.