In the summer of 2015, Napoli took the decision to replace outgoing head coach Rafa Benitez with Maurizio Sarri. Conventional wisdom dictated that they were taking a risk in appointing a 50-something former banker with just one year of Serie A experience to his name, but, three years on, it's safe to say the risk paid off.
Sarri has transformed Napoli into one of the most attractive and effective teams in Europe today. Their football has garnered plaudits from neutrals across the continent; even Pep Guardiola couldn't hide his admiration for them earlier this season. "[They are] are one of the best teams I've faced in my career," the Manchester City boss said after meeting Sarri's side in Champions League action. "No doubt about that. Maybe the best."
Napoli have yet to win silverware during this wonderful period, but that is the only thing that can be counted against them. They have challenged Juventus' domestic dominance for three years, and there remains a chance that they could finally topple the Bianconeri this season. Here, we at Tribal Football analyse the secrets of their success.
ITALY'S ZONAL MASTERS
In early 2017, Sarri was interviewed by Sky Sport Italia's Paolo Condo. He was asked all sorts of questions, but one of the first related to Arrigo Sacchi. In the 1980s and '90s, Sacchi transformed Italian football by totally doing away with man marking and libero-based systems, implementing a 4-4-2 with a zonal approach to defending and an aggressive offside trap. Sarri is seen as a disciple of Sacchi and, when compared with the iconic ex-Milan coach, was unable to hide his admiration.
"It's a comparison that brings me pleasure because part of the reason why I have this job is that I fell in love with [Sacchi's] playing style and methods," Sarri told Condo. "I used to record his matches with Milan and watch them over to study the defensive movements. I was amazed by the offensive and defensive order he gave his team."
Sarri's love of Sacchi is seen every time Napoli take to the pitch. While they line up in a 4-3-3 shape, not a 4-4-2, the key defensive principles are the same as those prevalent in Sacchi's Milan. The back four take up an extremely high line, often sitting around the halfway line, with goalkeeper Jose Reina expected to sweep up behind them.
The defensive line's movements are impeccable thanks to continual work on the training ground – a quick search of YouTube allows access to defensive sessions with the back four that are so rhythmic and precise they almost resemble a dance. Sarri, an incessant organiser, has also been known to use drones to monitor and refine his back line's collective positioning in practise.
Napoli's high defensive line, combined with their zonal approach, facilitates a high pressing game. They generally shift in accordance with the opposition's possession, constantly looking to apply pressure on and around the ball-player. Unsurprisingly Sacchi, the main protagonist in Italy's zonal revolution, is a fan. "[Napoli] move together," he said last February. "They are very well organised."
The effectiveness of Napoli's pressing strategy can be shown statistically. PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) measures how many passes, on average, a team allows their opposition to make in their own half before a defensive action, such as a tackle, or an interception. A low PPDA number is an indication of quality pressing, and only four Serie A sides have a lower number than Napoli's 9.18 this term.
THE MERTENS ADAPTATION
Two years ago, Gonzalo Higuain equalled a long-standing record. Not since Gino Rossetti in 1929 had any striker hit 36 goals in a single season of Italian top-flight football, but the Argentine did just that in 2016. It was, and remains, by far the finest campaign of his career. Months later, he would leave Napoli for Juventus in a controversial €90 million deal.
The prospect of replacing such an outstanding performer was a near impossibility. And Napoli weren't helped by the fact that Arek Milik, signed to succeed Higuain atop the front three, tore his anterior cruciate ligament two months after arriving. With Manolo Gabbiadini continually flattering to deceive, Sarri looked elsewhere for goals.
Dries Mertens had previously been Lorenzo Insigne's stand-in on the left wing, but the Belgian was, quite literally, asked to play a more central role in the absence of a fit and in-form natural striker. After a short period of adaptation, he began to find the net with impressive regularity, eventually hitting 26 goals in 27 league outings in his new position. He has built on that in 2017/18, scoring 20 times in 40 games.
Mertens possesses an exquisite touch and dribbling ability, moves laterally and vertically to link play, and has demonstrated that he can finish chances as well as make them. He is the fluid, all-round frontman Napoli's attacking play thrives upon – he distracts defences, combines well with team-mates, and drops to offer a vertical option through the centre.
That Sarri looked within for solutions to his scoring conundrum is not unordinary. His Napoli side are built upon a number of improved individuals, including Kalidou Koulibaly, Jorginho and Insigne. Indeed, if Sarri were playing Football Manager, he would undoubtedly choose to be a tracksuit manager, such is his disdain for anything other than pure coaching when solving squad-related issues. "I don't think about the transfer market," he said in 2015. "It doesn't interest me. I like to coach the lads I have available."
VERTICALITY, SPEED AND ROTATIONS
Sarri's attractive attacking style was known within Serie A before he joined Napoli. In 2014/15, his newly promoted Empoli side averaged 51.4 per cent possession, and 435 short passes per game. In both statistical categories, they were among the top seven sides in Italy. This provided a snapshot of what he would bring to Napoli – building from the back, and controlling the game through control of the ball.
In each of the three seasons since Sarri took over, Napoli have had the highest average possession in Serie A. This season's 60.6 per cent average is their highest yet – in 2015/16 they averaged 59.3 per cent, and last season they averaged 59 per cent. For context, in the season prior to Sarri's arrival they averaged 54.1 per cent.
However, simply having the ball is not enough. Sarri wants his players to use it, as he hinted at in a 2015 interview with Sky Sport Italia. "I look carefully at the midfielder's rapport between balls lost and vertical moves," he said. "I can accept a few more of the former if he runs into space and passes along those channels."
The key isn't simply to dominate the ball, but to utilise it. That often means taking risks, but that's okay with Sarri so long as the attack progresses more often than not. Consequently, his centre-backs – Koulibaly and Raul Albiol – and Jorginho are often tasked with playing vertical passes through congested central areas in order to try and penetrate the opposition midfield line.
These passes are essential to Napoli's form of attack, with the aim being to move into the vaunted 'zone 14'. This zone incorporates the central space in front of the opposition penalty area, and can lead to numerous attacking possibilities. Sarri's side often arrive in this zone through a vertical pass from defence to Mertens, who pulls off the front line to receive before laying off to one of the outer midfielders, who drives forward.
Napoli also have a tendency to attack down the left – 45 per cent of their moves this season have come down this side. The combination of Hamsik, Insigne and first-choice left-back Faouzi Ghoulam (when fit) is highly productive not only due to their quality on the ball, but because of their positional rotations, with each player taking it in turns to occupy the flank and the inside channel. This often distracts opposition defences, allowing Jose Callejon to dart behind them from the right wing.
Whether it be through fast, direct moves through the centre, overloading the left or quick switches to the right, Sarri's Napoli are able to create in a variety of ways.