Rafa Benitez is casting glances west of Naples. Well west, in fact. The Spanish tactician has been living in hotel rooms throughout his stay in Campania’s capital, refusing to lay down roots. His stand-offish approach may have at first been convenient for him, but it now seems to be bleeding into his team’s performances. Napoli haven’t won a domestic football match since February as rumour begets rumour regarding the impending conclusion of Benitez’s contract and what that might bring; for club and coach.
He has been relatively non-committal thus far, but a return to England looks likely, where there will be no shortage of potential employers with Manchester City, Newcastle United and West Ham United all on the lookout. Ideally he sees himself riding majestically into Liverpool on a wave of nostalgia, but Brendan Rodgers is unlikely to be budged aside to make room for him.
Regardless of Benitez’s next move, he has important business to take care of before then, starting with a home game against fellow European football-chasers Fiorentina tomorrow afternoon (15:00 GMT).
Both teams exited the Coppa Italia in their respective semi-final second legs during the week, in spite of holding advantageous positions going in. Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina worked hard and played well to win 2-1 away at Juventus but blew a gasket on Tuesday night as they were overthrown by three goals to nil at the Artemio Franchi. Napoli took an away goal into their home leg against Lazio, but lost 0-1 (1-2 on aggregate), to depart the competition they won last season.
Given their mutual cup disappointments in midweek, as well as the fact that just two points separate Fiorentina in fourth from Napoli in sixth in Serie A, both teams enter their weekend meeting in similar circumstances; broken-hearted but with much still to play for.
Montella’s system switching appears to have sent his players haywire within the last month. His 3-5-2 hybrid didn’t work against Juventus, and as such he will probably revert once again to a 4-3-3 setup. This will be important, particularly against a Napoli team that, if reports are correct, will be a playing a very attacking form of their usual 4-2-3-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini in the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Where Montella changes his formation depending on various factors; the opposition, the situation, the weather; Benitez is far more consistent. He has stuck by his 4-2-3-1 like an old teddy bear from childhood, comforting him in the challenging tactical environs of Italian football.
Benitez is also slightly more conformist in his approach. While Montella has used Josip Ilicic as a false nine, Mohamed Salah as an inverted winger and Joaquin as pretty much everything while rotating systems, Benitez likes to keep every component part of his system the same. That is until now, for the introduction of Gabbiadini behind Higuain could present a slightly altered setup for Napoli.
As seen above, using Gabbiadini as a second striker behind Higuain would make Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 more of a 4-2-4. It’s extremely enterprising but would leave plenty of space for Fiorentina to counterattack.
The key for Napoli will be to win the battle for the ball. Each team generally dominates possession but something will have to give tomorrow. Perhaps Benitez is hoping that playing such an attacking system will allow his side to impose themselves upon their visitors; winning the ball and keeping the ball in Fiorentina territory, leading to more goalscoring chances. That, however, will require a high-tempo press, and it does not account for how open Napoli looked during midweek.
Indeed their clash with Lazio became exhilarating, end-to-end stuff as the match approached its climax. It was wonderful to watch from a neutral’s perspective but, in the end, Napoli paid the price for being unable to force a goal out of all their opportunities. They cannot afford to be so profligate against Fiorentina, especially with the lack of balance that comes with fielding such an offensive system.
When Napoli lose the ball a lot will be asked of their defensive midfield warrior, Gokhan Inler, to win it back. The plethora of attacking options may cause concern to Fiorentina’s backline but if Montella’s men retain their shape, mark zonally (something they didn’t do particularly well against Juventus) and get the ball forward quickly, Napoli will be in real danger. Gabbiadini, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon are not renowned for their tracking back and, consequently, Fiorentina’s full-backs should find room to push into in transitions to attack.
Furthermore, should Fiorentina line up as expected, their attacking midfield could cause chaos. Matias Fernandez will likely drop deep to help his side win the midfield battle but he will join in the attacking phase on counterattacks, or when his team have possession. On either side of him Alessandro Diamanti will intelligently scheme and Mohamed Salah will use his speed to get in behind his opposing full-back. Essentially Napoli’s aforementioned lack of balance may leave their backline exposed to the threats of Salah and Diamanti, making for a severely uncomfortable game for Raul Albiol and his fellow defenders.
Benitez will almost certainly leave Napoli come the end of this campaign. The only uncertainty lies in how he will leave, and tomorrow could have ramifications in that respect. Playing Gabbiadini behind Higuain may be his last daring throw of the dice; one last shot at rekindling his team’s form. If it works, Napoli could be back in business. But there is a high likelihood it won’t, and Benitez may be left to rue the length of time he; unlike Montella, eschewed tactical flexibility in favour of consistency.