Maurizio Sarri’s decision not to continue as head coach of Napoli after nearly besting Juventus last season, amassing a club record 91 points using an entertaining style, must have been crushing to Neapolitans.
The provincial city appeared to be heading to glory for the first time since Diego Maradona played for them, only for the main driver of that success to leave for what already looks a doomed spell at Chelsea.
Napoli fans can be forgiven for worrying about their future without their local boy, however the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti shows their improved stature. Ancelotti has only managed Europe’s richest, most dominant clubs since leaving Parma in 1998 – that he would be willing to give Napoli a go is a positive reflection on how far the club has come since then.
In 1998, Napoli were relegated from Serie A, having won only two games all season, and would eventually drop down to Serie C1, liquidated and expelled from the professional leagues in 2004. Since then they have twice won the Coppa Italia, become regulars in the Champions League and last season came close to prising away Juventus’ grip on the scudetto.
This is the first time Ancelotti has managed in Southern Italy, so the move feels somewhat akin to Fabio Capello’s stint in charge of Roma – one of the Palazzo’s own looking to give the powers-that-be a bloody nose.
Aurelio de Laurentiis’ suggestions that Sarri’s methods cost Napoli are self-serving and bitter, but there are slight elements of truth in them. Sarriball propelled Napoli to the top of Serie A, however it was also rigid – when Plan A didn’t work, they did little to adapt.
Sarri’s style also required a lot of mutual understanding between players and, as a result, his work was based around a comparatively small pool of 13 or so players. A lack of rotation meant the team tired as the season went on, unlike the much deeper Juventus squad, and they were only able to truly compete on one front.
Ancelotti’s job is to evolve Sarri’s work rather than revolutionise it. “I am less rigid now on a tactical level than I was when I started out,” Ancelotti confessed. “I remain committed to the principles of organisation, movement off the ball, a high tempo and aggressive defence, but have become more elastic in terms of applying these principles.”
“I do think possession is important to control a game, but it has to lead to something. Do you know how many times a team scores a goal after more than 20 passes? In a year, it might happen twice. You tend to score goals after five or six passes. I think the only time we did it was with Simone Verdi against Torino. If there’s the possibility of playing out from the back, that’s good, but if you risk getting stuck back there, it’s better not to bother.”
Ancelotti has maintained the possession game of Sarriball but is less dogmatic, meaning Napoli are more likely to go direct if the opportunity presents itself. This more flexible approach ideally provides an alternative to the problem of those teams that couldn’t be broken down with Sarriball’s endless short passes.
It also means players that didn’t suit Sarri are now more likely to get a look-in, with Ancelotti rotating far more than his predecessor, keeping the players in better shape.
One of the alterations Ancelotti has made is in how Napoli press. Sarri’s approach was clearly heavily influenced by Arrigo Sacchi: a zonal system where the players shifted across and pressed in relation to where the ball was.
Ancelotti has replaced this with a man-orientated press, where Napoli players will close down the man on the ball and get close to their passing options. If the opposition do opt to play into one of those passing options, a Napoli player is immediately on top of them to win the ball back.
This method allows players to stick closer to the opposition, making it easier for them to be in a position to tackle, and is easier to implement, requiring less organisation between teammates as most of the positioning is dependant on the opposition. The downside to it is that it can leave large gaps if the opposition drag the Napoli players far from their starting positions, or if the opposition evades the press.
On top of the change in method, Napoli’s pressing intensity has also dropped. They kept the high tempo for matches in the Champions League and big domestic games against the likes of Juventus and AC Milan, but most of the time they are more relaxed. The forwards will rarely sprint at the opposition defenders and, even if they do, their teammates often won’t support them by pressing the passing options, making it quite easy to play around the press.
Napoli started the season in the same 4-3-3 shape that they used under Sarri, but switched to a 4-4-2 after the 3-0 defeat to Sampdoria. In the 4-3-3 one of the centre-midfielders would push up alongside the striker to close down the centre-backs, while the holding player, typically Marek Hamsik in a new role but also Amadou Diawara, would push up and cover whichever man the centre midfielder ahead had left to press the centre-back.
This would leave a large gap between the defence and midfield for the opposition to exploit. It was difficult to do so, because Napoli’s aggressive centre-backs were happy to step up and deal with any long balls forward, and to play out along the ground would require passing under pressure from Napoli’s forwards, however there was a dangerous gap left by Napoli in midfield.
The main issue was often the lack of intensity though: the midfielder would push forward to close down the centre-back but wouldn’t do it quickly, meaning the centre-back had plenty of time to pick out a pass before the Napoli midfielder got close to him. The pressing was ineffective as the centre midfielders had too much ground to cover to get to the centre-back without sprinting, and with which one moved up in support of the striker changing depending on which side of the pitch the opposition played down, it was common for the other centre midfielder to be moving up to press before the other one had dropped back into midfield.
It simply wasn’t a very effective way of putting the opposition under pressure and did little to protect the centre of the pitch, so Ancelotti made some relatively minor rearrangements to resolve the issue. Rather than having one of the centre midfielders push forward in support of the striker, Lorenzo Insigne was moved into attack.
This protects the centre better, as Insigne starts in a position to block passes into midfield or press the centre-backs, whereas the midfielders were having to move up just to get into position to defend, and works well for Insigne, who can stay further up the pitch rather than tracking back deep into his own half.
The only other differences are minor: the left-sided centre midfielder, usually Piotr Zielinski or Fabian Ruiz, now covers the left flank and will step out to close down the opposition full-back. The two in the middle switch between pressing their men and dropping back to cover the other, when previously the roles were more specific: the centre-midfielders would press and the holding player would cover.
The back four behind them remain very well-drilled. If the opposition tries to simply play over the pressing with a long ball, the centre-backs are more than capable of heading it back the other way or the four will quickly drop off if it’s played behind them, keeping narrow to cover each other.
When Napoli aren’t pressing, they stay narrow in their 4-4-2 formation, protecting the middle of the pitch to encourage the opposition into wide areas, where they can then trap them against the touchline by stopping them from playing the ball back inside.
This does draw attention to the weakest parts of Napoli’s team though. Neither Elseid Hysaj or Mario Rui are bad players, but if you were to replace any of Napoli’s outfielders, those are the first two you would probably pick.
Hysaj is very aggressive in one-on-ones, steaming into challenges at full speed. This can have its benefits, with him getting on top of players before they have the opportunity to control the ball or even sneaking ahead of them to win the ball before it gets to them, but it also often results in him giving away silly fouls or overshooting his mark, allowing his man to attack the space behind him.
Although he can occasionally be caught a little flat-footed, Rui is a better one-on-one defender. He will frequently pounce on an opponent and counter quickly if the opportunity presents itself, however he usually doesn’t dive into challenges like Hysaj does, preferring to stand them up.
While he is good at stopping his man from dribbling past him, his positioning rarely accounts for anyone making a run behind him, meaning the wide man might struggle to dribble past him, but can easily just pass the ball around him to a teammate making a run – Kalidou Koulibaly is usually on hand to cover though. Rui’s short stature also presents an obvious problem in the air.
Kevin Malcuit has looked a capable alternative at right-back. Unlike Hysaj, Malcuit tends to stand off his opponent, encouraging them to try and take the ball past him, before using his pace to dart in front of them and get his body between his opponent and the ball.
Faouzi Ghoulam finally returned in December after over a year out injured, yet he has only occasionally featured since.
In the centre, Napoli are much stronger. Koulibaly is one of the world’s best defenders – strong and dominant in the air, quick across the ground and excellent positionally, even comfortable pushing far into midfield when needed, only taking the risk if it’s safe to do so.
Raul Albiol is outshined by Koulibaly: not quite as strong, not quite as quick, and not quite as good at making decisions, but is nevertheless a very good defender and excellent partner for the Senegalese.
With Pepe Reina leaving to warm the bench at Milan, David Ospina started the season in goal. He’s a decent goalkeeper, but his lack of height does limit him. His tendency to flap at crosses after coming out doesn’t matter too much in Serie A, where the referee will generally give a foul for any nudge on the goalkeeper, but he does seem to be more troubled by long shots than most of his peers.
(Orestis Karnezis also appeared early on in the season however I only saw two of his games so can’t give any accurate assessment)
In the new year, Alex Meret has taken over. The young Italian is taller than Ospina so actually gets to crosses, even if he does tend to punch them away rather than catch, and he has good reactions, not only for making saves but when realising he’s made a mistake in coming out, quickly retreating to his line. One quibble is that he tends to stand with his feet quite wide, requiring him to make a quick step inside to dive and limiting the power he can push off with – his footwork is quick though, so this isn’t really punished.
Reina was one of the best sweeper keepers in the world at his peak and, while he isn’t quite as dependable as he once was, his willingness to come out eased some of the pressure on the backline in a way his successors don’t.
The greater loss is his ability with his feet though. Neither Ospina or Meret are as comfortable passing out from the back, making Napoli more susceptible to pressing and more likely to lose the ball in their own half.
Koulibaly and Albiol still split to the edge of the box when Napoli look to play out. Albiol is good on the ball, calm in possession and capable of picking out raking passes, but, like his defending, he is outshined by Koulibaly.
The Senegalese has a fantastic range of passing and, when an option isn’t available, he will continue to push forward on the ball until one opens up, forcing the opposition to close him down.
The width on the right is provided by Jose Callejon, which means the right-back tends to stay back alongside the centre-backs, forming a back three once the ball moves past the defensive line. This was more pronounced in the Champions League where centre-back Nikola Maksimovic was chosen on the right.
Hysaj’s body shape rarely faces forward when he receives the ball anyway, so his passes tend to go backwards or inside. He is capable of bursting forward when the opportunity arises, but he will rarely cross and he can be left isolated in the attacking third, with little movement from the attackers to provide a passing option. Malcuit is more willing to simply send a cross in if he gets forward, but they aren’t particularly accurate.
Like under Sarri, most of Napoli’s attacks go down the left. The extra cover given by the right-back staying deep allows Koulibaly to carry the ball forward with confidence or move into wider areas that allow him to circulate the ball more effectively.
Unlike Hysaj, Rui is encouraged to get forward and provide width. He made more sense under Sarri, as Rui can play lots of short quick neat passes to work the ball forward with his teammates, however he doesn’t really cross, preferring to play passes along the ground. With Ancelotti looking to play more directly, Napoli are more likely to play down the right and then send a cross-field ball over to Rui, but as the Portuguese prefers to play the ball back inside rather than driving forward to the byline, this isn’t really very effective at stretching play.
Ghoulam is more comfortable getting high and wide to whip crosses into the box, but has barely feautured since his long-awaited return in December.
With Jorginho following Sarri to Chelsea, his organising role at the base of the midfield was surprisingly given to Hamsik. Despite playing as an attacking midfielder for most of his career, Napoli’s captain capably moved back to a more defensive role under Ancelotti. His role had already changed last season, often moving back to free up Jorginho, but this season he took on more defensive responsibilities and for the most part passed.
He showed good awareness for someone who wasn’t a natural, quickly getting into positions to block passes into the forwards and tracking back much better than he had last season. The move to 4-4-2 after just a few games relieved some of the pressure on him though, while Ancelotti’s man-orientated system probably simplified the role for him too.
The question marks were of course all concerning his defending: there was little doubt that he could help build attacks for Napoli. His quick feet under pressure and passing made him perfect for linking the defence to the attack. Convinced by Ancelotti to stay in the summer, the captain brought his eleven years at the club to a close in February, moving to Dalian Yifang in China.
He has been replaced by Ruiz, who had mainly rotated in the left-sided position with Zielinski prior to Hamsik’s departure. The Spaniard is a neat passer and takes up good positions to maintain possession, but he doesn’t keep the ball circulating at the same speed as Hamsik or Jorginho did and he also isn’t very strong defensively.
The first choice midfielder is Allan. The Brazilian is tenacious, hard-working and strong, regularly outmuscling his opponents and holding them off to keep the ball. His work covers up for a lot of the defensive weaknesses of the rest of the midfield, but he isn’t perfect: he sometimes isn’t aware of threats and him being a bit of a lump can leave him a little slow to turn.
Being able to carry the ball forward and stabbing short passes into his teammates’ feet means he can contribute going forward, however he’s not really a creative player, requiring someone more progressive alongside him.
This may be why Diawara hasn’t played a great deal. The young Guinean looked the most obvious replacement for Jorginho: capable of twisting away from opponents under heavy pressure, moving on the ball with one touch before anyone can get close, and able to chip a pass over the top if given the space. He also offers more defensively than Jorginho did – intelligent enough to antipate and intercept passes like his former teammate, but quick across the ground and more physical too.
While he is undoubtedly talented, Diawara prefers to hold back and sit in front of the defence rather than joining the attack. Likely to be played next to the less creative Allan, the addition of Diawara to the midfield is probably too limiting to break down many defences in Ancelotti’s 4-4-2.
Marko Rog had an even harder problem getting significant minutes as he is a similar type of player to Allan, going out on loan to Sevilla in January.
Those two midfielders sit in front of the back four when Napoli play out from the back, forming triangles with the three defenders to ensure there are plenty of passing options.
If one of the central midfielders pushes forward, Zielinski is comfortable dropping back alongside the other and helping his teammates play out. For the most part he plays higher up the pitch though, tucking in off the left between the lines.
Typically brought on as a substitute for Hamsik under Sarri, Zielinksi is similar to Ruiz in that he struggles a bit too much defensively to really flourish in the centre of Ancelotti’s 4-4-2. He’s more talented than the Spaniard though: capable of quick passing combinations with the forwards, but also running with the ball and picking out low driven shots at goal, using either foot to keep defenders guessing.
The left sided position hasn’t really changed his game too much as he tends to remain central, allowing Rui forward on the overlap, with the main difference being that he now picks up the opposition full-back’s runs rather than leaving them to Insigne.
Napoli’s main way of attacking comes from these combinations between the lines. Insigne and Dries Mertens are often played together, with both able to lead the line or drop off. The deeper players can either play it straight into whoever is between the lines or they can hit it forward for an attacker to lay it off. Once the ball is there, the players take quick one-touch passes to work it into the box and shoot.
Finally fit again after two anterior cruciate ligament injuries, Arkadiusz Milik has mostly spearheaded the attack this season. Although Mertens and Insigne bring the most flexibility to Napoli’s frontline, neither are natural goalscorers, preferring to come short and pick up the ball around the edge of the area. Milik can drop off into space and play quick passes – although not quite as fluently as Insigne and Mertens – but is comfortable attacking the box, frequently making runs to the near post when Napoli attack down the left.
At 6’1 he’s also better in the air than either of his partners, allowing him to convert crosses or win long balls, and he has a mean shot with his left foot.
The Insigne-Mertens partnership takes best advantage of the fluid passing of Sarri’s team, but Milik’s inclusion allows Napoli to play more directly as Ancelotti has stated he wants to encourage.
Callejon has continued on the right flank. He tends to hug the touchline and stretch play, but it’s rarely his job to send in crosses. Most of Napoli’s attacks come down the left side, so Callejon’s role is to stay on the outside of the full-back and make runs in behind, taking advantage of the defender’s blind-spot as a teammate lifts the ball over to him from the left. He either converts himself at the far post or squares it to a teammate at the other for an easy tap-in.
Although most of Napoli’s attacking is very similar to what they did last season under Sarri, Ancelotti has got them playing more directly, switching the ball out to the flanks with long passes.
It’s hard to see where Verdi – a versatile attacker whose main strength is in picking up the ball and running past players to get a shot at goal, often isolating himself from his teammates as he runs down an alley – would have fitted into Sarri’s side and, while more likely to link up with his teammates than Verdi, Adam Ounas’ tricky dribbling only ever got him one start under his previous coach (and that was only in the Europa League).
The left-sided role has generally gone to natural centre midfielders like Zielinski and Ruiz, however Ancelotti has also been willing to use wingers Verdi and Ounas to stretch play on the left, making Napoli less predictable.
Already well out of the Serie A title race yet sitting comfortably in second place, it’s hard to really judge Ancelotti’s work so far.
His job is to make Napoli less rigid so that they can gain the points they dropped in the chase last season, but it hasn’t quite worked out like that. Although Sarri was more dogmatic in his approach, that approach made his team greater than the sum of their parts. In taking away part of that playing style, Ancelotti has made the team more flexible, but they are also less effective.
This can’t all be put on Ancelotti’s shoulders though: he has had to deal with the departures of Jorginho, Reina and Hamsik, not helped by lesser, albeit acceptable, replacements, and the decline of the aging Mertens. He was also unfortunate in the Champions League, only just missing out on qualification to the last sixteen despite a very tough draw.
Napoli may have potentially peaked under Sarri, however there’s little reason why Ancelotti can’t solidify them as a top team in Italy.