We continue our pre-season Q&A series by discussing Napoli with Conor Dowley. The Partenopei are currently in transition following the departure of Rafa Benitez and appointment of Maurizio Sarri, so there was plenty to talk about.
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TACTICAL CALCIO: Maurizio Sarri was recently appointed as Napoli coach after just one year of Serie A experience with Empoli. Do you believe he is the correct man to take the club forward?
CONOR DOWLEY: I think it’s at least worth giving him a shot. He did very well with an Empoli side that no one gave a chance to even stay up in Serie A. People were pining for Unai Emery or Luciano Spalletti or Jurgen Klopp, but going with a guy like Sarri lets the club take a breath an actually build a bit instead of rushing headlong towards their objectives once again. That rush cost them last season under Rafa Benitez, so now a different approach may be the right one.
Is he a flashy hiring? No. In fact, a number of Napoli fans were livid when his name came up in rumors, feeling he was uninspiring and that his hiring showed that Aurelio De Laurentiis (ADL) lacks ambition for the success of Napoli. Let’s get one thing straight: ADL has nothing but ambition for Napoli to succeed and grow. But he’s also a businessman, and a very good one at that, so he recognizes when a change in approach is necessary. That’s what Sarri represents.
And it’s not as though Sarri is a garbage manager by any means. He took Empoli from a bad Serie B side to a very good one, got them promoted, then turned them into one of the hardest teams to beat in Serie A. He’s very well respected within the Italian football community, and that’s not something you achieve without having at least some measure of talent. Now it’s time to see just how big that measure is.
TC: Whereas his predecessor Rafa Benitez preferred a 4-2-3-1 system, Sarri often employed a 4-3-1-2 at Empoli. How do you envisage him implementing his formation and philosophy at Napoli with the current playing squad?
CD: With the squad that Rafa left behind, it will be very difficult to do, especially in midfield. Sarri’s reliance on energetic box-to-box central midfielders on either side of the band of three will be met by a lack of them, with only exit-bound Gokhan Inler remotely fitting the role. David Lopez can do a job there, but he’s better as a more constrained ball-winning midfielder. Jorginho might be able to play there, but he’s much better suited to the deep playmaker role at the base of the midfield. Napoli have a lot of work to do in the mercato to let Sarri’s system function in midfield.
Defensively, Napoli mostly just need depth to make it work, especially at right back. Right now they have an old and sadly broken-down version of Christian Maggio and the oft-injured Camilo Zuniga at right back, which isn’t a comfortable place to be considering how much work Sarri’s fullbacks have to do as the only natural wide men in the side.
In attack, it’s mostly an issue of who goes where in a crowded front three. Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens can operate as the man behind the striker. Gonzalo Higuain, Duvan Zapata, and Manolo Gabbiadini can all be the main striker. Insigne, Gabbiadini, and Jose Callejon can all work as the second striker. Napoli need to sort out who’s staying, who’s going, and who’s going to focus on what role — they’ve got the personnel to make the attack work, but they players need to know what they’re doing before they can get good at it.
TC: The focus may predominantly fall on Sarri, but Napoli also recently hired former Carpi sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli following the departure of Ricardo Bigon. Are you impressed with Giuntoli’s hiring and does this signal a change in transfer policy?
CD: Honestly, it’s hard to be impressed or disappointed in the hiring of a sporting director, but you have to admire Giuntoli’s track record. He’s got a long history of taking a shoestring budget and building a team that succeeds to a degree far beyond its means. Just look at what he’s done with Carpi: it’s a tiny team from a small town with a postage-stamp stadium, and with almost no operating budget for him to work with. Despite that, Giuntoli built a team that got promoted from the third division, then gave his manager a squad that wound up as a force in Serie B, earning promotion to Serie A for the first time in the club’s history after this past season.
Hiring Giuntoli actually doesn’t indicate a major shift in philosophy as far as the sporting director’s role is concerned. Giuntoli and former Napoli D.S. Riccardo Bigon both have an eye for good talent at under-valued prices, and Bigon’s aptitude in that area served Napoli well over the years as they work with less available transfer and wage money than many of their peers around Europe. In fact, it’s possible that Giuntoli winds up to be an upgraded version of Bigon, as he’s had far more success under low-budget conditions in lower divisions of Italian football than Bigon did with Reggina before he joined Napoli in 2009.
TC: The first order of business for Napoli was to bring in Mirko Valdifiori, who played under Sarri at Empoli. How integral will he be to Sarri both tactically and as a player who knows his methods first-hand?
CD: Valdifiori will be very important this coming season, and not just for his skills on the pitch. As you mentioned, he knows Sarri’s system inside and out, and with his experience and intelligence on the pitch, Valdifiori can basically serve as an extra coach, helping his teammates — especially his fellow midfielders — better learn, understand, and execute their roles on the pitch. If he helps shorten the learning curve and get Napoli playing at a high level in this system faster, then that alone will be worth his transfer fee.
But Valdifiori can also help Napoli on the pitch. While he’s maybe not quite at the level Napoli would normally look at talent-wise, his calm presence on the ball and eye for passes that can start a quick build up for an attack is something that’s always valuable. He’s also very good at providing service from dead-ball situations, both from free kicks and corners. That’s something that Napoli have struggled mightily with the last couple of years, so getting someone who can reliably provide quality service is definitely a good thing for Napoli to have acquired.
TC: Napoli have been rumoured to be interested in a number of players, such as Sime Vrsaljko, Matteo Darmian, Riccardo Saponara and Diego Perotti, among others. Do any transfer targets stand out to you? If you had the power, who would you bring in?
CD: Of the four you mentioned, either of Vrsaljko or Darmian would be good for Napoli to get thanks to the aforementioned need for a right-back. Saponara I like well enough and think he could be an asset for Napoli, but the fees being talked about in rumors are just too high for him. Perotti I just don’t think is a fit. Other than those, the talks of bringing in Allan from Udinese are pleasing, as he’d be a very good fit, though Napoli still need one or two more midfielders after him. The other high priority needs to be in central defence, where there is no quality depth right now.
TC: Although a club legend, Marek Hamsik was rotated by Benitez last season. Why was that, and will the Slovakian re-establish himself under Sarri?
CD: My full, honest opinion on this one involves a lot of language not suitable for polite company, so I’ll have to temper things rather significantly. Suffice to say: Benitez handled Hamsik horribly. He subbed him out when he was playing well, benched him and wouldn’t bring him on in matches that were screaming for him until it was way too late for Hamsik to make an impact, and way too often left him out of the line-up in big matches. He beat down Hamsik’s confidence for no apparent reason and never allowed him to gain any sort of rhythm, which is a killer for a player like the beloved, spiky-haired Slovakian.
Fortunately, Sarri isn’t nearly so randomly bull-headed about such things. While last season he tended to use players who are more along the lines of a slashing runner as that advanced midfielder behind the strikers, Sarri has also made use of more traditional, playmaking attacking midfielders in that spot in the past, so Hamsik will fit in just fine. It’s time for Marekiaro to rise again.
TC: Sarri has a one-year deal with the club. What would be a successful year for him and the club in your eyes, and do you think he will earn an extension?
CD: The trouble with that one year deal is that Sarri will be on a very short leash. If there’s any struggles or sign that things might be starting to spiral away from success, he’ll be gone before you can make an espresso. If he can get a chance to build a sustained run of good form before any troubles come, though, I think Sarri can evade any rough patches that would get him sacked and keep Napoli competitive in the upper reaches of the table. He has an option for a second year in his contract that should get picked up as long as he succeeds this season, and “success” will most likely be judged by improving on last season’s fifth-place finish.
Even with all that in mind, though … it’s hard not to have a nagging feeling that Sarri is only here until someone De Laurentiis likes more comes available. ADL is kinda crazy like that.