Style with substance. It is surely the Holy Grail for most football coaches. They are independently hard enough to achieve – and one is sometimes forsaken for the other, so those who can find a way to combine them, particularly at the highest level, are rightly lauded.
It is early days in the Serie A season, but Napoli head-coach Maurizio Sarri appears tantalisingly close to producing that magic formula, that Eureka moment. Napoli have been playing some of the most attractive football in Europe for some time now, but there have been missing ingredients – factors that turn great entertainers in to winners.
Much of it is down to mentality, and for all their mesmerising football, Napoli have not had that crucial extra edge. The type of thing that for so long I’ve strongly associated with the current Italian champions, Juventus. That ability to win matches without playing well, a collective belief that they belong at the top, the confidence/arrogance of champions, a team-spirit and team ethic that bonds, inspires and roots out those who can’t or won’t buy in to it.
Whilst the season is long, and making predictions can be a mug’s game, I have to say I’m becoming more and more convinced that Napoli do now have those qualities, that they could be champions, that this could be the season they deliver a first Scudetto since Maradona and co in 1990. From the outside looking in I see a group of players who, as Lorenzo Insigne alluded to recently, are sick of playing well but ultimately falling short – they now want to be winners.
They are the first side in Serie A history to win the opening seven matches of the season with at least 25 goals scored – they are on a club-record run of 12 Serie A victories in a row, and are unbeaten in 19 top-flight matches, another club best. All impressive statistics which illustrate the level of consistency expected of champions, but these figures only tell part of the story. It is the manner and variety of Napoli’s performances that suggest to me that they are as close as this group has ever been under Sarri to delivering the Scudetto. Whether a side has the ability to win a demanding and competitive league championship is almost always better assessed by how they perform on an average day than a good one. I read more in to the 2-3 win at SPAL, than perhaps I do the 6-0 win over Benevento. To recover from a goal down against sides like Lazio and Atalanta also shows impressive resilience and character. Napoli are no longer just about blitzing teams, they can also show grit and determination.
These qualities aren’t just stumbled over, they are honed and developed, and Maurizio Sarri’s hard work over the last few years is really paying off now. His influence on the side tactically and technically is clear for all to see. But what he now has is something all coaches must surely crave – continuity and consistency. Minimal changes over the summer, and star names tied down to long-term contracts – there is great familiarity amongst this group of players in terms of the coach’s demands, expectations and the style of play. They all get it, they all buy in to it, and it shows on the pitch.
All that said, the physical demands of Napoli’s intense style mean there’s always the risk of fatigue, particularly if Sarri continues to be reluctant to fully utilise the strength in depth that they’ve now amassed. How he rests and rotates going forward could be crucial in the title race – as will the performance level reached by the defending champions, who seem to have dipped slightly from the exceptionally high standards of last season. Even so, wrestling the Scudetto away from The Old Lady will require a tremendous effort, but there’s every possibility this could be the season where Neapolitan dreams come true, and style finally meets substance.