The 2014/2015 campaign was a disappointing one for Napoli: it started badly with the elimination against the underdog Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League play-offs, and ended even worse, with the 2-4 home loss to Lazio that saw the Partenopei miss out on Champions League football for the second consecutive year. During his second year in charge, Benitez took a consistent step back, yet one of the worst season in his coaching career, surprisingly got him one of the most craved job in football.
After the departure of their former manager, this was a summer of changes in Naples, with a lot of new faces coming in, both in the technical staff and in the player roster.
The new coach – Maurizio Sarri
Empoli FC, one of the main relegation candidates last season, upset all predictions in securing a well deserved Serie A safety, with one of the lowest budget of the league and almost the same starting-eleven who conquered the promotion from the Serie B the year before. The chief architect of this football-miracle was Maurizio Sarri, the manager who implemented an entertaining style of football, made of pressing from the frontline, offside traps, obsessive attention to set-pieces and one of the best defensive structures in Italy, if not in Europe.
After being predicted as the new AC Milan manager since January, Sarri eventually found an agreement with Aurelio de Laurentis, to replace Rafa Benitez on Napoli bench, leaving Tuscany after three successful seasons. Aged 56, this is the first big opportunity of his career, even if he has coached since 1990.
Sarri literally rose through the ranks, starting his coaching career from the Seconda Categoria, the fifth level of Italian non-professional football, splitting himself between his bank clerk job in the morning and his coaching one in the afternoon. A graduated in Economics, Commerce and in Statistics, he also worked as financial advisor, until 2001, when he left his job to dedicate himself full-time to his coaching role at Sansovino, a small club located in the province of Arezzo.
I do the best thing in the world. This is not a job: I would do it even for free – Maurizio Sarri
In a three season span, he took the club from the Eccellenza to the Serie C2 (the fourth rank of professional football, which no longer exists today). Since then he coached in every league of the Italian football pyramid (image below), progressing step by step and season by season. Finally, at the end of the 2013/2014 Serie B championship, he placed 2nd in the league gaining his first promotion to the Serie A.
In the next few days, “Mr 33 schemi”, a nickname related to the number of different set-pieces tactics he coached back in Monte San Savino, will start his second ever Serie A season, at the helm of a team which consistently battled for a top-5 finish in the last few years.
The new sporting director – Cristiano Giuntoli
De Laurentis, the chairman of the Partenopei, decided to turn things around also in the scouting and managerial department, choosing Cristiano Giuntoli as their new sporting director, substituting Riccardo Bigon, at the club for the last 6 years. Like Sarri, Giuntoli is another man who worked his way up. An ex semi-professional footballer, the 43 years old was Carpi’s sporting director from 2009 until this summer.
What happened in Carpi during the last few years was a true example of Moneyball in football: starting from the Serie D the club gained four promotions in five seasons, finally clinching Serie A last season, by winning the Serie B in commanding fashion. What really stood out of all the Carpi story, is their cautious management and their clever scouting system: they purchased a lot of relatively unknown players from lower leagues, such Jerry Mbakogu (free-agent), Lorenzo Pasciuti (26.000€) and Kevin Lasagna (75.000€), all instrumental in their recent success, and bought for a combined fee of 101.ooo €.
Carpi operating costs from last season was just € 4,5 million, three of them for players wages. Gonzalo Higuain’s net wage is worth alone € 5,5 million.
Napoli’s job is a big leap forward for Giuntoli’s career, but his ability in exploiting inefficiencies in the transfermarket, will be pivotal for Napoli in the next few years.
During the pre-season training in Dimaro, Sarri gave himself some time to evaluate the team: the only player he asked for before the team gathering, was his reliable deep-lying playmaker from Empoli, Mirko Valdifiori. Not the most physical midfielder, the main feature of the 29-years old is his speed of thinking: he often plays one or two touches, has a remarkable vision and he likes to play vertical passes. He is one of the best playmaker in Italy, the most recent Azzurro in Conte’s national team and above all the player Napoli needed the most, a regista capable of dictating the tempo of the team.
In addition to Valdifiori, Napoli added players to almost every position of their team. After last season’s struggles of Rafael and Andujar, Pepe Reina made his comeback under the Vesuvius, after only one year at Bayern Munchen, where he barely played under Pep Guardiola. The Spanish keeper could be again the defensive leader he was two season ago and could solve the club’s goalkeeper issue. Gifted with a good technique, Reina is the right goalie for Sarri’s team, considering that he will often have to play the ball with his feet, a typical feature of Luigi Sepe, Empoli last year keeper, ironically loaned by Napoli to Fiorentina. To replace the young home-grown keeper, Giuntoli purchased Gabriel, on loan from AC Milan, a player he already took to Carpi. After some bloopers during this summer, the Brazilian will compete with his fellow countryman Rafael for the role of first Reina’s backup.
In defence, they bought another player from Empoli: the Albanian right-back Elseid Hysaj, one of the best young players from last season, also capable to play on the left. After chasing Rugani without success, they brought in Vlad Chiricheş, the ball-playing defender from Tottenham. Napoli are also looking for another centre-back, and they eyed up one more defender from the Balkans, this time the Serbian Nikola Maksimović, but they haven’t found an agreement with Torino, yet. If the young centre-back arrived in Napoli, Koulybaly would be reportedly sold to a Premier League club, with Everton, Southampton and Norwich all keen on the French.
They also needed a box-to-box midfielder capable of playing in a 3 man midfield, and who could bring in stamina and strength alongside Valdifiori’s geometries and Hamsik‘s raids into the box. After long negotiations with Udinese, Giuntoli finally landed Allan, probably the best box-to-box midfielder available in the Italian market: the Brazilian engine has been the back-to-back top-tackler in the league during the last two Serie A season.
To this day, moves involving a new forward are excluded, considering an already overcrowded attack consisting of Gonzalo Higuain, Manolo Gabbiadini, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, José Callejon and also of Eduardo Vargas and Nicolao Dumitru, both made available on the market.
Sarri’s favourite system is the 4-3-1-2 he showcased in Empoli, precisely the system he deployed during the summer. He also worked on the 4-3-3 and the 4-3-2-1, but the 4-3-1-2 will be Napoli standard formation.
Before the starts of the pre-season, Sarri, a Big-Data enthusiast, locked himself in his office with his note-book, examining clip after clip of 2014/2015 Napoli matches, specifically regarding the Azzurri’s defensive phase, one of the major weak point under Benitez: last season they conceded 54 goals in the Serie A, 2 more than their new manager’s team, Empoli. The defensive phase was indeed one of the most discussed topic in Dimaro training-camp.
This summer Napoli chose to play a series of six, not so demanding, friendlies, if we exclude the one against FC Porto, which ended 0-0. They lost only one, the 2-3 against OGC Nice, but given the relative strength of the opponents it’s hard to express judgments on their play, especially on the defensive phase. Empoli defence was extremely well organized and reached level of horizontal compactness unequalled in Italy, thanks to a core of players that uninterruptedly trained the same movements for a period of three years.
After the friendly against Feralpisalò that caused some alarm bells to ring, the following match against Nice, revealed some of Napoli’s weaknesses in defence. In particular the second goal was caused by Henrique, who was over-aggressive in leaving the defensive line (quite compact until that moment), opening a gap that Koulibaly wasn’t able to close (video below).
Sarri’s ideal defence marks zonally and is totally ball-oriented: the four defenders have to watch for the ball, not for the man. A tactical principle which led to comparison with Arrigo Sacchi, who indeed, is a true admirer of Napoli coach.
This system need time to be implemented, so do not expect to see the Partenopei defence do what Empoli did last season very soon, considering the fact that this type of defence will be a newness for them majority of the players. Rugani, now at Juventus, explained well the difference between Sarri’s way and the majority of defensive system in Italy.
When I played for Empoli, the most important thing was the ball, and we (Empoli defenders) moved in relation to it. Now, under Allegri, the main reference point is the man – Daniele Rugani
To understand how big this defensive change is, it’s interesting to see the distinction between how Napoli defended corners under Benitez in comparison to how Empoli did.
Nevertheless, what already works quite well is Napoli pressing-game. Pressing from the frontline was already a habit with Benitez in charge, so the players didn’t require much time to fulfil the request of their new manager. The best example from the pre-season is the fourth goal against Latina, scored by Gabbiadini after a ball recovery near the opposing penalty area.
The player that probably will benefit the most from Sarri’s appointment will be Marek Hamsik. Benitez played him as the offensive midfielder in his 4-2-3-1, which wasn’t the Slovakian’s natural role. He was often cut out from the play, and he have to act with his back to the goal, so he couldn’t unleash his lethal deep runs into the box, who made him score 61 goals in his first six Serie A season (14 in two with Benitez in charge). Now Sarri has moved him again in midfield, a role in which Napoli captain is finally glad to play.
Lorenzo Insigne is another player who is reborn during the summer. After the knee ligament injury which ruled him out for the majority of the 2014/15 season, Sarri changed his role, lining-up the left-winger as the offensive midfielder of his 4-3-1-2. The young Neapolitan appeared immediately comfortable in his brand new position behind the strikers and, during pre-season, he has been the leading goal-scorer for his club.
Empoli forwards Pucciarelli, Maccarone and Tavano were three very-mobile strikers that often moves wide to drag defender away and open inside channels for the runs of the offensive midfielder, Riccardo Saponara. Therefore Sarri elected two wingers, Dries Mertens and José Callejon for the role of the second striker, alongside the irreplaceable Higuain. El Pipita gives his best inside the penalty box, so it’s unlikely to see him move wide: against Latina with an attack consisting of Insigne behind Callejon and Higuain, was the 25-years old Italian to move wide in place of the Argentinian.
The key for the upcoming season is how much time the players will need to comprehend and assimilate their coach’s principles of play. Napoli roster seems a step behind Juventus, and probably Roma too, but if the fans and especially the board will have the required patience, Sarri will be the true extra weapon in the Partenopei arsenal and the club will fight at least for a Champions League spot.
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