For me, as a fan of football there are few things better than watching players who are, week-in-week-out, almost guaranteed to get you off your seat. What’s so special about this current Napoli side is that they have a whole team of those players. The great entertainers of Serie A, football with a heart-pounding intensity – in my opinion they and Monaco have been the most exciting teams to watch in Europe this season.
Unlike their French counter-parts though Napoli are, barring an astonishing turn of events, going to end the season trophy-less. So the pressing issue going forward is how can Maurizio Sarri turn plaudits in to prizes?
If Napoli are to win a Serie A title in the coming years, the strong likelihood is they’ll need to finish above Juventus, and what The Old Lady do better than any other side in Europe right now is get the balance right between attack and defence. It sometimes means they have to be pragmatic, and Max Allegri doesn’t mind sacrificing entertainment for success. After a 1-nil first-leg win over Monaco in the Champions League semi-finals, he said if you ‘if you want to have fun, you should go to the circus’. For Napoli to lose the high-intensity and expression in their play would be to kill their identity, the things that make them so great – but if they are to win trophies there has to be a better balance struck, they have to pick their moments better, particularly in the really big games. It’s seems strange to say this about a team that tends to dominate possession, but above all else Napoli need to play better when they don’t have the ball.
Again I will reference Juventus here because I think it’s entirely relevant. The Bianconeri, in chasing a treble, have had to rotate meticulously this season, and they have the squad to do it, but I feel this is an area where Napoli have to be cleverer. Last summer I thought Napoli re-invested the Higuain cash very wisely. Tiredness had been a factor at the end of the 15/16 season because the first-eleven barely changed – so this extra strength in depth provided an opportunity, particularly with a high-intensity style, to rest and rotate. But has Sarri really made the most of the extra depth? Does he really trust all those who were brought in last summer? Whilst injuries have been a factor with some of those recruited, it’s still surprising that we haven’t seen the likes of Maksimovic, Tonelli, Giaccherini, Rog, Diawara and Zielinski begin more league games – between them they’ve only made 39 starts in Serie A this season. At the time of writing, Napoli have seven outfield players who’ve started 25 league games or more, for Juventus the figure is four.
It’s easy to forget that when Sarri came to Napoli he didn’t have the easiest of starts – taking two points from their first three league games in 15/16 playing a 4-3-1-2 formation. That early form led to quite a lot of criticism and scepticism, which melted away after Sarri switched to a 4-3-3 set-up for the visit of Club Brugge, thumped them 5-nil and went on a tremendous run thereafter. It’s my view that this formation still suits Napoli’s players best, but I believe it’s a squad with the capability to be much more tactically flexible than we’ve actually seen so far. You have to wonder how scarred Sarri is by the flack that came his way in the very early days, from Maradona amongst others. Perhaps that plays a part in his reluctance to change things too much, but while any change always brings an element of risk, that extra flexibility might, on occasion, be a necessity for Sarri to find ways of winning the tighter games and outwitting the best coaches – it may also aid the pragmatic approach referenced earlier.
I read a lot of player interviews before commentating on games, and one with Jose Callejon, published on Football Italia back in March, I thought was particularly telling – it had originally been broadcast on Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli
“We feel as if we are an important team, but we need to know we are because at times I don’t think we have that mentality.
“Those on the bench and in the crowd also need to know we are a strong team, we can win something. On the pitch we need to enjoy ourselves, give enjoyment to the crowd and to our teammates.
Rightly or wrongly I read a lot in to that, particularly the first line. As wonderful as Napoli are, as close as they are to being a truly top side, do they collectively believe they are good enough to take those extra steps that are needed? Again, it’s a stand-out difference between Napoli and Juventus right now.
It’s important to finish on a positive, because there is so much to love about this Napoli team, and that’s perhaps why those involved seem keen to stay – Lorenzo Insigne has already committed to a new long-term deal and the word is that Dries Mertens will be next. It’s also been reported that Maurizio Sarri may be close to committing to a new four-year contract, and many Neapolitans will hope this turns out to be true. A man who was born in the city, and in the same year that the Stadio San Paolo was opened. He supported the club as a boy, even though he actually grew up in Tuscany. A forward thinking and innovative coach with an incredible drive and attention to detail – soon Sarri will be preparing for a third season in charge of Napoli at the same time that there’s instability and uncertainty in the coaching positions at the likes of Roma, Inter and Fiorentina. Whilst new coaches at those clubs may bring with them new ideas, squad overhauls and lots of change, Napoli fans know they are much further down the road of development – much of the hard work is now done, for Sarri it’s now just about tweaking and perfecting in his search for that winning formula.