One of the major tactical issues for Napoli last season was a lack of central control. Too often, Rafa Benitez’s men ceded ground in midfield to be left open to the counter-attack as they slid down the Serie A table to a disappointing fifth-place finish.
With the Real Madrid-bound Benitez replaced by former Empoli coach Maurizio Sarri, the club is currently undergoing a transition period full of change. One important moment in this process came with the arrival of Brazilian central midfielder Allan, from Udinese.
After weeks of rumour, Allan officially joined the Partenopei on 21 July, per Goal. His transfer is one that could prove to have hugely important implications for Napoli, particularly given the tactical preferences of Sarri.
With Empoli, Sarri showed a predilection for a 4-3-1-2 system that moved from compact defence to expansive offence. His central midfield trio was crucial to the way his Empoli side played, with playmaker Mirko Valdifiori supported by two hard-working and dynamic midfielders on each side.
Sarri’s Empoli outplayed Napoli en route to a comfortable 4-2 win at Stadio Carlo Castellani last season, with the midfield battle integral to the way the game unfolded. That day, Napoli’s midfield duo of Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano were stretched and penetrated on multiple occasions by Empoli’s midfield three in a startling showcase of Napoli’s midfield vulnerabilities.
Valdifiori has since followed Sarri to Napoli in a move that hints at the possibility that the coach will be hoping to replicate his Empoli tactics in Naples, something he as good as confirmed in a recent question and answer with fans. Per Football Italia, he said:
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.
The formational alterations—Napoli played in a 4-2-3-1 under Benitez—will likely see Valdifiori reprise the role of playmaker he performed under Sarri with Empoli. In this vein, Allan will probably undertake one of the two ball-winning roles alongside Valdifiori. It’s a role he is well-suited to.
Nobody in Serie A made more tackles per game than Allan’s 4.6 last season, per WhoScored. In statistical comparisons, he scores well when pitted against Inler, Gargano and David Lopez, who were Napoli’s main central midfield options throughout 2014-15.
Not only did Allan win far more tackles, he also won a higher percentage of all duels engaged in. Alongside his forceful defensive work, Allan was also shrewd; only Lopez committed less fouls per 90 minutes.
One area in which the former Udinese man will perhaps need to develop is his distribution. Not only did he attempt far fewer passes than either of Inler, Gargano or Lopez, but he also completed far fewer of those he did attempt.
Despite this, it’s clear that, while Allan possesses the ability to drive at the opposition with the ball at his feet, the primary reason for Napoli's desire to sign him certainly wasn't his passing. The most valuable asset he brings to the Napoli midfield is defensive nous.
His signature is an attempt to shore up a leaky central midfield with a tendency to be overrun, and his ball recovery will be crucial as Sarri attempts to implement the system and style of football that worked so well for him with Empoli.
One of Allan’s most impressive performances in a Udinese shirt came against Juventus last season, where he stymied the threat of Paul Pogba. The technically-gifted young Frenchman was unable to impose himself upon the game due mainly to Allan’s indefatigable work ethic and defensive skill.
Sarri and Napoli have grand designs of returning to the Champions League and, perhaps, one day challenging Pogba and Juve for the Scudetto. While they are still in the early stages of a transition, such ambitions became much closer to reality with the signing of Allan. With him on board, they will finally have much-needed central control.
All statistics provided by Squawka, unless otherwise stated.