As Maurizio Sarri was recently appointed as Napoli coach, now feels like a good time to recall the day his Empoli side steamrollered the Partenopei, who were at that point still coached by Rafa Benitez. On 30 April 2015, Napoli travelled to Tuscany on the back of three straight wins as they chased a top-three Serie A position that would have earned them Champions League football for the 2015-16 season. They were confident but, as Sarri’s Empoli were to prove that day, extremely open.
Napoli’s defensive vulnerability
While throughout his managerial career Benitez has earned a reputation for tinkering and being a strong tactician, his Napoli side rarely, if ever, deviated from a 4-2-3-1 formation. Occasionally his rotation of attacking personnel, such as swapping Marek Hamsik with Manolo Gabbiadini to play behind the lone striker, would lead to a slight alteration in the style of player undertaking a specific role, though the overall system remained the same.
It could be argued that the club went backwards during Benitez’s two years in charge. Napoli had just finished second in the league when he arrived; they finished third in his first season and fifth in 2014-15. Coppa Italia and Supercoppa wins were also put into perspective by a failure to make progress in the Champions League. Given this, it is fair to ask why Benitez was so reticent to make tactical changes. The 4-2-3-1 he implemented at Napoli was capable of producing some wonderful attacking football but it was also vulnerable defensively, something Sarri and Empoli exposed.
Benitez’s attack was built around Higuain as the lone striker, supported by an attacking midfielder and two wingers, although the wingers could almost be viewed as outside forwards. These players played high up in wide areas and used their pace and skill to run at and get in behind opposing full-backs. Their attacking nature meant that Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 could easily have been construed as a 4-3-3 when on the offensive.
Benitez encouraged his own full-backs, Christian Maggio and Faouzi Ghoulam to get forward in support of the outside forwards, with two central midfield pivots acting as safety nets to allow for their offensive mannerisms. The problem was that, with the outside forwards often so high up the field, Maggio and Ghoulam were left to patrol huge areas of space on the right and left flanks respectively. This was an obvious opportunity for the opposition, and Sarri’s Empoli were perfectly attuned to take advantage of it.
Empoli’s attacking movement key
Sarri’s Empoli became known for their high-tempo brand of football, a style that manifested itself in whatever formation the team lined up in. Against Napoli, Sarri lined his team up in a 4-3-1-2, a system that he came to favour over the course of the 2014-15 campaign.
One of the key traits of Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 was the pulling wide of the strike duo, Massimo Maccarone and Manuel Pucciarelli. This movement often stretched the opposing side’s central defenders while Maccarone and Pucciarelli also attacked any space in behind the opposition full-backs. This tactic worked well when up against a back four with attacking full-backs and hence it was effectively deployed against Benitez’s Napoli.
Sarri can be credited for kickstarting and then revitalising Riccardo Saponara’s career, using him as a trequartista behind Maccarone and Pucciarelli, putting the ‘1’ in 4-3-1-2. Saponara was licensed to play with creative freedom and the horizontal movement of the strikers only increased the amount of space he could move into. Against Napoli Saponara was devastating when driving forward, creating and taking scoring opportunities.
Empoli win the midfield battle
Saponara’s freedom was built upon solid midfield foundations. Behind him, Sarri utilised Mirko Valdifiori as a regista flanked by two ball-winners and carriers; Daniele Croce and Matias Vecino. This midfield trio were crucial to Empoli not only gaining a foothold, but dominating Napoli early on.
Vecino and Croce would pull out wide to help stem the flow of attacks from Napoli’s full-backs, while also shuttling forward to apply pressure to Napoli’s outmanned midfield duo of Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano, who were preoccupied in trying to stymie Saponara’s movement.
In order to help out teammates and see more of the ball, Hamsik was drawn back, dropping deeper and deeper in an attempt to gain possession, but the Slovakian found himself in a difficult position when he did so. With space congested, there were limited options for him with passing lanes often closed off by Empoli’s midfield three. Meanwhile, Inler and Gargano were bypassed time and again, unable to thwart the dynamism of Empoli’s midfield diamond.
How the match played out
Empoli troubled Napoli from the very first whistle, with Saponara brought down inside the Napoli penalty area in the opening minute only for the referee to ignore his protest. Minutes later, the lively trequartista found space in the final third once again, getting in between Napoli’s defence and midfield. He played the ball to Maccarone, whose pullback found Pucciarelli to shoot wide thanks to a deflection.
The warning signs were there but Benitez’s Napoli didn’t heed them, going 1-0 down after seven minutes. Starting with a fairly harmless throw-in, some fantastic one-touch passes from Saponara and Pucciarelli averted Napoli’s half-hearted press and drew out the centre-backs, leading to Maccarone being played in to strike hard and low beyond Mariano Andujar.
Empoli had the lead but would not rest on their laurels. On 42 minutes a pinpoint Valdifiori pass found the horizontal movement of Maccarone. Using the forward run of Elseid Hysaj as a decoy, Maccarone instead played a slide rule pass for Saponara to run on to. Saponara just reached the ball at the byline to square it before Napoli centre-back Miguel Britos turned into his own net to double Empoli’s advantage.
Before half-time, Empoli put the game beyond Napoli with another swift move. Fending off Hamsik, Croce played a simple one-two with Vecino to take out Inler and Gargano, both of whom had unwisely decided to press hard well into Empoli’s half of the pitch. This unsuccessful press encouraged Britos to break Napoli’s defensive line, charging out only for Croce to go beyond him, this time through a one-two with Pucciarelli. Croce carried on before playing in Pucciarelli, whose shot was parried into the air by Andujar only for Saponara to acrobatically find the net with a bicycle kick on the rebound. It was a superb, flowing move that completely disrobed Napoli’s incoherent defensive setup.
3-0 down at half-time, Benitez’s Napoli chased the game in the second half and had the better of it, though Empoli had a strong lead to sit back on. Benitez replaced Ghoulam with centre-back Raul Albiol, moving Britos to the left side in recognition both of the need for greater authority in the centre of defence and more defensive solidity in the full-back areas.
On 64 minutes a Maggio cross was diverted in by Vincent Laurini and Napoli had a glimmer of hope, though they missed whatever chances they created in the proceeding quarter-hour before a Valdifiori free-kick went in off Albiol to make it 4-1 to Empoli. Hamsik fired home a powerful strike in the dying embers of the game, though the goal had already been rendered irrelevant.
Empoli thoroughly deserved their 4-2 win, while Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis could only watch on as his team faltered badly in their pursuit of Champions League football to a club with one of the lowest budgets in Serie A. If De Laurentiis was unaware of Sarri’s tactical acumen beforehand he certainly knew of it after this match.