Of all the managers who could have succeeded Maurizio Sarri at Napoli, Carlo Ancelotti wasn’t exactly the most natural of fits. While Sarri goes against the grain of the stereotypical Italian football coach, Ancelotti is the embodiment of that stereotype. Subsequently, many expected Napoli to suffer a drop off this season.
On the basis of their first two Serie A games of the season, however, Napoli could defy such pessimistic predictions under Ancelotti. Last season’s runners up started their 2018/19 campaign with an impressive 2-1 away win over Lazio, with Napoli pulling off a comeback from two goals down to beat AC Milan 3-2 at the San Siro in their next fixture.
At a time when Juventus are tightening their grip on the top of the Italian game, with the summer signing of Cristiano Ronaldo only likely to improve them further, and so the rest of the chasing pack in Serie A are jostling for position. Roma have been mentioned as potential challengers following their run to the semi finals of the Champions League last season. They’ll be looking to build on that domestically.
AC Milan are also in the midst of a renaissance, with new owners pledging funds to a complete overhaul of the club. There was an air of positivity around Inter Milan ahead of the new season too, although that has since vanished following an opening weekend defeat to Sassuolo and a subsequent draw at home to Torino.
Napoli, of course, pushed Juventus all the way last season. They have a squad equipped to compete on all fronts, with the likes of Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne among the most creative, reliable attacking threats in Serie A. That trio will no doubt cause problems for opposition sides this season.
However, Napoli have lost their midfield pace-setter Jorginho, with the Italian international joining Sarri at Chelsea. It’s difficult to overplay the influence Jorginho enjoyed at Napoli last season. He was the one who controlled their play around the pitch, both recycling possession, driving it forward and picking a pass into the final third. With his sale to the Premier League, Napoli had the heart of their team ripped out.
This is perhaps Ancelotti’s biggest task as Napoli coach this season. He has already experimented with different options in an attempt to compensate for the loss of Jorginho, with Hamsik dropped deep into an anchoring position. The Slovakian certainly has the ability to perform as a pace-setting central midfielder, but that robs Napoli of his influence higher up the pitch, closer to the opposition goal.
Against AC Milan, Ancelotti even shifted his side into a 4-4-2 shape, with Mertens coming on to replace Hamsik. The Belgian was then used as something of a second striker, with Napoli doing an effective job of disrupting the Rossoneri as they tried to play the ball out from the back. It demonstrated that Napoli remain inherently adaptable and versatile as an outfit.
All this goes against the narrative that had built up following Ancelotti’s appointment at Napoli. Following his sacking at Bayern Munich last season, the 59-year-old was widely deemed to be on the decline, a relic of a bygone age in the European game. What’s more, he was seen as a poor fit for a team renowned for playing some of the most exciting, dynamic football on the continent.
But Ancelotti is rapidly changing that narrative. Napoli have started the season well, picking up two big results to kick off their 2018/19 Serie A campaign. But it’s not just that they have recorded those wins, it’s the manner in which they did it. Juventus are still favourites to clinch an eighth straight Scudetto. The Bianconeri haven’t been this strong for a generation, but Napoli might still be the ones to get closest to them, even with Sarri gone and Ancelotti in his place.