Rafa Benitez was apoplectic. He had just watched his Napoli side draw 2-2 away to financially doomed, already relegated Parma. With just three league games left in the 2014/15 season, the result scuppered the club’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League through a top-three league position. The Spaniard received a one-match touchline ban for his post-match behaviour, where he was said to have screamed, “This is the shitty thing about Italian football”.
Over the next four matches, the last remaining vestiges of a respectable season were torn apart as Napoli flunked out of the Europa League to Dnipro and blew a top-three Serie A finish by losing 4-2 at home to Lazio on the final day of the season. Soon, Benitez would leave for Real Madrid.
Benitez’s Napoli had become predictable in his second year in charge. Such was the fundamentalism with which he stuck to the 4-2-3-1 system, teams with far less individual talent were able to plan and dismantle the Partenopei. The most obvious example of this came not against Parma, but away to Empoli in late April. Napoli eventually lost 4-2 that day, but the game was essentially over as a contest by half-time, with Empoli leading 3-0 after some flowing attacking football that penetrated Napoli’s defence time and time again.
Empoli’s coach that day was Maurizio Sarri, though now he finds himself in charge of Napoli as Benitez’s replacement. Along with the new coach came a new sporting director, with Cristiano Giuntoli, who built the team that allowed Carpi to work miracles and reach Serie A this season, replacing Riccardo Bigon. This summer there has been plenty of change for Napoli on the pitch, too. Full-back Elseid Hysaj and deep-lying playmaker Mirko Valdifiori followed Sarri from Empoli, while Vlad Chiriches arrived from Tottenham and Brazilian ball-winner Allan signed on from Udinese. Napoli have also made attempts to rectify their goalkeeping issues of last season by bringing back Jose Reina and loaning in Milan’s Gabriel.
With a highly-respected yet understated new coach and some intriguing signings, Napoli appear to be refreshed going into the 2015/16 season. Additionally, without the intense spotlight of Champions League football, they can now focus on the league as their clear number one priority.
Maurizio Sarri is not your normal football coach. His path to the upper echelons of Serie A is a truly unique one. After studying Economics, Commerce and Statistics, he forged a successful career as a banking consultant while coaching local teams in his spare time.
Sarri was forced to choose between careers after guiding Sansovino to Serie C2 in 2003. He chose football, moved up the coaching ladder and wound up at Empoli in 2012. After leading the Tuscans to Serie A and keeping them there, he was chosen to succeed Benitez at Napoli, which is by far his biggest coaching job to date.
His appointment is an in unorthodox one; he only has one year of Serie A coaching experience and no playing career to speak of. He’s 56 years old, likes a smoke on the touchline and is considered a minor eccentric, but he’s at Napoli for a good reason. His coaching methods have earned praise from high places, including iconic former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi. Others – such as Eddie Howe, who visited Sarri at Empoli – seek to learn from him.
His Empoli side were youthful, fearless, well-organised and played fluent attacking football. If Sarri can transpose that brand of football onto Napoli and achieve success with it, he can expect an extension to his one-year contract.
Gonzalo Higuain must have endured a couple of sleepless nights this summer, with penalty kicks the primary cause for his torment. At the end of last season, he blazed one over the bar with Napoli and Lazio tied at 2-2 to miss out on a hat-trick and the chance to complete a special comeback that would have seen Napoli qualify for the Champions League. Less than two months later, he fired spectacularly over again as Argentina lost out in the Copa America final on penalties to their Chilean hosts.
Higuain has a strong scoring record in Italy, averaging just over a goal every two league appearances over the course of his two seasons in Naples. He provides a clinical edge that Napoli otherwise lack and thus it will be hoped that he moves on from his penalty woes to lead the team’s line once again in the coming season.
One to Watch
It seems that the term ‘functional’ is being applied to Brazilian football more and more these days. A country that formerly bred midfielders of astounding guile, trickery and creative capacity is gaining more and more notoriety for producing astute ball-winners. These tactically useful players may not be as breathtaking, but they are integral to the modern game. Allan is one such player.
After breaking out at Vasco da Gama, Allan arrived on Italian shores with Udinese, a club renowned for its vast scouting network and efficient transfer policy from which the likes of Samir Handanovic, Mehdi Benatia, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sanchez have benefited. Last season Allan emerged as one of the most effective midfielders in Italy, suggesting he could be the latest talent to flourish via Udinese’s production line. He won more tackles than anyone else in the league – far more, in fact – and fortified his growing reputation by stifling Paul Pogba as Udinese drew 0-0 at home with Juventus.
A resolute tackler and indefatigable runner, Allan will be expected to add stability to a midfield that was often vulnerable last season. Coach Sarri will probably utilise a midfield three with a similar dynamic to the one he had at Empoli; one playmaker flanked by two midfield shuttlers. Allan will be one of those shuttlers, offering protection to the playmaker and driving forward when appropriate.
Sarri has a predilection for a 4-3-1-2 formation, as showcased with Empoli, though he also appears keen on employing other systems with Napoli, something he has hinted at during pre-season, telling reporters:
“We are working on two or three alternative systems. I am convinced that the 4-3-3 can be useful every now and then, but at the moment we are focusing more on the 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-2-1.”
With all three of the systems seemingly being considered by Sarri, the backline and midfield will essentially remain the same come what may, though the attacking shape is open to conjecture. There is one guarantee: Higuain will lead the line, though there is plenty of choice as to who partners him, and in what way they will line up.
There are also question marks as to how Sarri will utilise club captain Marek Hamsik, who was so often left on the bench by Rafa Benitez. The Slovakian can play behind the strikers or in central midfield, although he is not necessarily an ideal fit for either role in a Sarri system as he is neither a ball-winner nor an out-and-out trequartista.
Valdifiori will resume the central playmaking role he undertook for Sarri at Empoli, with Allan likely on his right. Hamsik may well start on Valdifiori’s left, which would create more space for the multitude of attacking options Napoli have to choose from to play behind Higuain. These options include classy second striker Manolo Gabbiadini, vivacious dribbler Lorenzo Insigne and the versatile winger-cum-striker, Jose Callejon. Assuming Sarri plumps for the 4-3-1-2, it would not be surprising to see Callejon playing up front to the right of Higuain, with either Insigne or Gabbiadini close behind.
Defensively, Napoli were poor last season, conceding more goals than anyone else in the top half of Serie A. That is something Sarri will hope to rectify not only through the additions of Chiriches and Hysaj but by developing a more proactive and tactically intelligent midfield to protect the back four.