Maurizio Sarri’s “vertical possession”



Maurizio Sarri, Napoli’s Head Coach, built his reputation in the Italian lower leagues. After many years he reached serie A leading a small club like Empoli. Empoli is a small town in Tuscany (Italy) and the Club is well renowned to be one of the best Academies in the whole Italian football system. Furthermore, they are one of the few clubs in Serie A where the majority of the players are Italian born. I consider Maurizio Sarri one of the best coaches because of his tactical philosophy which is based on an effective and in the meantime attractive brand of football. This philosophy is something that I like to call “vertical possession”.



In an era where the possession rate has become nearly an “obsession” for the coaches all around the globe at every level, we forget sometimes that to have the ball most of the time during the game doesn’t mean to be really effective. Too many times I see teams keeping the ball for the sake of it but without creating nothing but give the opponents the chance to regroup and organize a defensive action. Too many square passes, slow circulation of the ball, lacking of penetration: these are the three main elements that make the possession ineffective.

What Sarri is trying to do is to subvert this principle, creating a mentality where the players think “vertical” before than the rest. This does not mean kicking the ball about forward aimless but, rather than keep the possession by playing “horizontally”, Empoli tries to exploit the depth of the pitch by passing the ball forward and backward. In order to do that, Empoli’s players occupy the space on the pitch creating several lines and triangles in order to move the ball with forward and backward passes.

As you see in the video above, Empoli’s players spread vertically on the pitch passing the ball forward and backwards trying always to cut off the opponent lines.

The player in possession has always more than one option: he can pass the ball to one/two men running forward or short to a man dropping . There’s another reason underlying this style: passing vertically gives the passer the chance to be well positioned defensively if the ball is intercepted.

The system of play is 4-3-1-2 or, if you like, 4-4-2 diamond shaped. This is in my opinion the best system in order to maintain a shape that can guarantee to perform this playing style.



This style involves every single player starting from the build-up. The goalkeeper never gives the ball to a fullback to avoid him being pressed straightaway and forced to kick the ball away. If the opponents get close to the centre backs to avoid them receiving the ball, the goalkeeper will search for a long ball but, bar very few exceptions, won’t pass the ball to a fullback.

Here are examples of this principle in the videos above. It is more difficult for the opponents to press in the centre of the pitch because the risk to be bypassed by a vertical pass is very high. This gives Empoli’s centre backs the chance to build up with more effectiveness, finding often the space to serve the ball to a midfielder.


The first option for the centre back in possession is to pass the ball to a midfielder in the middle no matter if pressed from behind. This causes always a problem to the opponents because there’s a lot of rotation between the 3 midfielders. If one drops to receive from the centrebacks, at least another one will find space in the gap.




Every ball passed to a midfielder is an opportunity to create the right conditions to earn space further up whereas every pass wide (to a fullback for example) is a chance given to the opponents to start pressing.


Empoli’s fullbacks are the only two players providing width to their system. Whereas there’s a central spine of players spreading vertically, the task of the fullbacks is to give a passing option wide but possibly only in the opponent half. If they receive the ball in their own half, there’s a typical routine that can become very effective to cut off the opponent midfield line. You can see it in the videos below:


(step 1)

In this situation the right fullback got the ball in his defensive half. Usually they play in this way: (step 1) the right midfielder runs forward to create space for the central midfielder who goes for the ball from the fullback.


(step 2)

The central midfielder plays a straight vertical pass forward to a dropping striker (step 2)


(step 3)

With this pass they can cut off  two/three opponents


(step 4)

The striker got the ball and they can keep the ball in the opponent half and start a dangerous attacking action.


As I said previously, the three midfielders are constantly moving and rotate in order to give more than a passing option to the centrebacks. Usually one drops to receive onto feet from the centre backs while the other two move forward searching for a space behind the opponent midfield line. As every other player in the team, the principle is still the same: find a “vertical” passing solution before everything else.


The midfielder shows up to receive from a centre back.


As soon as he gets the ball he turns forward and looks for the vertical pass to a striker.

FREE BALL: when a midfielder has time and space to play a ball forward (free ball) he will do it without hesitations choosing between a ball over the opponent back four searching for the running men or playing in “the gap” for the one who comes short.


STRIKERS + n.10 (the man in the hole)

The strikers are crucial in this system because, together with the “n.10) are those that with their contrary movements create big problems to the back four. Two of them aim always to run behind the defensive line while the third one comes short to receive the pass “in the hole”. This type of behavior is very difficult for the defenders to cope with because they are constantly asked to take a decision: tracking the runners or squeeze up and hold the line up? If only one of them fails to move accordingly to the others the defending line collapses.

Let’s have a look at these movements:


As you can see from the picture above, the midfielder in possession has two options.

  • Passing to the n.10 in the hole (the best choice in this situation because the defenders track the runners)
  • Searching for the long pass to the runners


In this situation, the opponent back four keep the line up to squeeze the space in front but giving the chance to Empoli’s  n.10 to run behind them.


With this movement they find always the way to create an opportunity as one of the three can always find free in the gap (see pictures below)



In the following pictures see how Roma’s defending line collapses due to this movement.


(step 1)

One striker comes short to receive from the midfielder while the n.10 start running forward. The other striker plays on the brink of the offside line waiting for the right time.


(step 2)

Pass back to a fullback who aims forward for the run of n.10. Look at the collapsed line of Roma’s players.


Watching a Napoli game this season you will recognize the same principles and patterns of play although they play a 4-3-3 system.






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