The Maurizio Sarri Effect: What Will Change at Napoli Under Their New Coach
It’s the first step into the future for the Partenopei, who disappointed in both domestic and continental competition in 2014-15.
Having worked his way up the Italian football ladder, Sarri ended up at Empoli in 2012 and, by 2014, he had led the club to promotion from Serie B. Over the last year, the Tuscan side surprised people with their dynamic, fluid football and its effectiveness.
While Sarri achieved Serie A survival in comfortable fashion with Empoli, the Napoli job is still a big step up. It also involves risk, something certified by club president Aurelio De Laurentiis’ decision to give the coach an initial one-year deal.
Napoli went backward under Benitez, and it has fallen to Sarri to steer the ship in a forward direction once more. What will he change to accomplish this?
Sarri was born in Naples, so his appointment as coach is effectively a homecoming. A former banker, he began coaching in his early 30s with Stia in the lower reaches of Italian football.
From there he winded up at Empoli after short spells with the likes of Pescara, Hellas Verona and Perugia, among others. Having led Empoli to promotion, last season was his first experience of Serie A football.
Perhaps what most convinced De Laurentiis to pursue Sarri as Benitez’s replacement was his dismantling of Napoli in late April.
Chasing a Champions League spot on the back of three straight wins, Napoli arrived in Tuscany full of confidence, only to experience a chastening 2-4 defeat. The first-half was particularly harrowing as Napoli lost the midfield battle and were unable to deal with the movement of Empoli’s strike pairing of Massimo Maccarone and Manuel Pucciarelli, going into the break 0-3 down.
Having watched his Napoli so comprehensively overwhelmed by Sarri’s tactics on that day, perhaps De Laurentiis came to the conclusion that if you can’t beat Sarri, hire Sarri.
Empoli’s 4-2 demolition of Napoli was a fantastic insight into the tactics Sarri likes to employ. That day Empoli lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with emphasis on high-tempo, attacking football.
Mirko Valdifiori played at the base of a midfield diamond and was two steps ahead of everyone else as he orchestrated Empoli’s offensive plays with his excellent passing range. He was flanked by Matias Vecino and Daniele Croce, both of whom shuttled between defence and attack.
Croce was particularly instrumental, with his energy and constant work rate affording Valdifiori greater time on the ball. Meanwhile, in front of Croce, Valdifiori and Vecino at the tip of the diamond was Riccardo Saponara.
Saponara first flourished under Sarri’s management while in Serie B with Empoli. Sarri switched him from the wings to a trequartista role behind the strikers, a modification that led to improved form and a move to AC Milan.
Saponara was given little time to play at San Siro, culminating in a loan move back to Empoli in January 2015 that was recently made permanent. The last six months have seen him rediscover his best form, and against Napoli he was at his creative peak.
In the very first minute, he was brought down in the box but was not awarded a penalty. Six minutes later, he set up Maccarone to open the scoring with a cute pass. Before half-time, Saponara scored from a deflected cross to double the lead before making it 3-0 with a bicycle kick after a wonderful, flowing move.
Saponara was given freedom to roam by Sarri, though he would not have been as effective were it not for the movement of Maccarone and Pucciarelli, who both pulled wide to create space for Saponara to drive into from deep.
Sarri’s tactics were undoubtedly a huge part of Empoli’s success, and in that win over Napoli, his ideas were perfectly illustrated.
Under Benitez’s auspices, Napoli lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation come what may. Although renowned for his tinkering, Benitez was consistent with this system last season, arguably to a fault given the lack of success it had.
Benitez’s use of two outside forwards in Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens or Lorenzo Insigne left huge space down the flanks either between them and the full-backs, or in behind the full-backs. This, combined with a lack of pace in the centre of defence, made Napoli extremely vulnerable at the back.
This vulnerability was evidenced by Napoli conceding more goals than anyone else in the top half of Serie A, and indeed two more than Empoli, as per WhoScored.com.
Sarri will likely make Napoli a more compact unit, especially if he does end up using the 4-3-1-2 system that worked so well for him with Empoli. To do that, he will need to make some changes to his playing personnel.
Several additions could be made simply by his revisiting Empoli. Luigi Sepe was Sarri’s goalkeeper while on loan from Napoli and so Sepe could well be his first-choice now they are together again in Naples.
The centre of defence needs to be improved as Kalidou Koulibaly lacks pace and the requisite refinement expected of a player within a frenetic, passing team. In front of the back four, Sarri could return to Empoli once more to sign Valdifiori to play as his regista, as—per Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli, via Football Italia—Jorginho is said to be set for the exit door having failed to truly impress.
At the tip of the midfield diamond, Napoli legend Marek Hamsik could play, though again Sarri may be tempted to go back for Saponara and build his midfield around two players he knows well in both Saponara and Valdifiori.
Up front, Gonzalo Higuain is a top-class striker and is on the back of his best season in terms of goals scored, while Callejon, Insigne and the returning Eduardo Vargas could provide the necessary movement to make Sarri’s tactic function smoothly.
Napoli have a squad filled with quality, and their underachievement could feasibly be addressed by two or three signings in key areas to complement Sarri’s preferred formation. It will be a tough ask to perfect within the one-year timeframe contractually allotted to him. Then again, Sarri is used to winning against the odds.