Like so many purists before him, Maurizio Sarri is carving out a footballing legacy. With Empoli and then Napoli he implemented some of the most intoxicating attacking play seen on the peninsula in decades. Not since Zdenek Zeman had someone won so many fans while winning so few trophies. Now his stylistic vision resides in England, with Chelsea, but the ideas he popularised in Serie A remain influential.
Despite the lack of silverware, Sarri broke points records with Napoli and came closer than anyone to challenging Juventus’ domestic dominance whilst refusing to sacrifice his principles. Retired playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron, who played for Lazio during his prime years, went so far as to say that Sarri, “Changed the style of play in Italy. Even in Argentina we talk about how his Napoli played.”
Carlo Ancelotti was handed the unenviable task of succeeding Sarri at Napoli over the summer. However, he has always been a coaching reformist, not a revolutionary. From the very beginning of his tenure, he made it clear that he sought to retain many of the tactical traits instilled by his iconic predecessor.
“You always have to take into account what has been done, as well as the level of the players, then of course every coach has his own ideas,” he said in August. “You need to try to implement them gradually, without throwing away the good things that were done in the past. The first thing I wanted to work on here at Napoli was exactly that: not to take away all that was good about this team.”
The changes have indeed been gradual, but evident. Game after game, Napoli have looked a little less like Sarri’s team and a little more like Ancelotti’s. During their second league fixture of the campaign, a 3-2 win over Milan, the shape changed from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. In the following matches, Jose Callejon took up a wider position on the right while Lorenzo Insigne moved inside from the left. The attacking structure became a fluid 3-4-1-2 and, rather than replacing Jorginho, Marek Hamsik and Allan took it in turns dictating the play from deep.
In a matter of months under Ancelotti’s guidance, Napoli’s defensive line has dropped back a few yards, their attacks have become ever so slightly less focused on left-sided rotations, and the build-up has become more direct. These changes can be seen in the statistics.
Last season, they averaged 60.3 per cent possession, 676 short passes and 54 long balls per game, while 46 per cent of their attacks came down the left side. This season, they are averaging 54.2 per cent possession, 533 short passes and 66 long balls per game while just 40 per cent of their attacks come down the left. Furthermore, they are allowing their opponents more passes per defensive action on average.
Another major change made by Ancelotti relates to his use of the squad. While Sarri was hesitant to deviate from Plan A and rotate personnel, Ancelotti is keen to utilise the full array of individual talent available to him. In the whole 38-game Serie A 2017/18 campaign, Sarri used 23 players. After just seven league games, Ancelotti has already used 21. This increasing willingness to modify the line-up from one weekend to the next has come along with greater tactical versatility – whereas Napoli were wedded to 4-3-3 before, they are now a more fluid and unpredictable outfit.
So far these changes have had positive results. Napoli have won five of their seven domestic fixtures, with the only unexpected defeat coming away to Sampdoria. And while their 0-0 draw away to Red Star Belgrade in Champions League action was evidence of teething problems, this is nothing unique to Ancelotti. It may since have been forgotten, but Sarri also took time to impose his ideas at the San Paolo, winning just one of his first five league games in charge.
Toppling Juventus may be too tough a challenge for Ancelotti in his first season, but then he has never been a league specialist – many of his greatest managerial accomplishments have come on the continent. As well as winning the Champions League twice with Milan, he led Real Madrid to La Decima. This ability to succeed in Europe’s most prestigious knockout tournament is no doubt the result of his aforementioned flexibility.
With Ancelotti in charge, Napoli won’t simply look to impose their style on everyone else. They will adapt more frequently with the intention of neutering opposition strengths and exploiting opposition weaknesses. Considering this, as well as the vast individual quality at their disposal, they have what it takes to go deeper in the Champions League than they ever have before. If so, Ancelotti could leave a legacy of his own in Naples.
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