Part II: A First Campione D’Invierno (Or, Tuscan Men Love to Curse)
After a faltering start to the season with a paltry two points from the first nine, it was the first match in the Europa League against Club Brugge where Napoli began to show signs of life. By the end of the Rafa Benitez era, Napoli had been branded as tactically predictable due to the Spaniard’s dogmatic adherence to the 4-2-3-1. Despite Maurizio Sarri’s predilection for the 4-3-1-2 formation he had utilized at Empoli, the bespectacled coach was insistent during pre-season that his side would be tactically flexible.
“We are working on two or three alternative systems,” he had told reporters. “I am convinced that the 4-3-3 can be useful every now and then, but at the moment we are focusing more on the 4-3-1-2 and the 4-3-2-1.” True to his word, Sarri opted to try out the 4-3-3 against Brugge. Though Napoli were a much favored side to begin with over the proud Belgian club, the result was emphatic as I Partenopei ran out 5-0 winners behind a brace each from Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon, supplemented by a second goal of the season from the club captain Marek Hamsik.
Sarri opted to stick with his 4-3-3 in the following grudge match against Lazio, reintroducing Allan for David Lopez in midfield and Lorenzo Insigne for Mertens on the left wing while maintaining his trust in Jorginho over Mirko Valdifiori to set the tempo following his key role in dictating play in against Brugge.
The result was equally explosive, as Napoli sliced apart Lazio time and again to repeat their stunning 5-0 scoreline from midweek. Gonzalo Higuain was the star man, scoring two magnificent solo goals and seeing a third shot denied by the Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, only to have the rebound turned home by a waiting Insigne.
Despite the rampant attacking performance, though, it was the midfield duo of Allan and Jorginho that caught the eye of Maurizio Sarri. Jorginho’s incredible volume, range, and accuracy of passing was a joy to behold as the central midfielder orchestrated the direction of almost every attack for his side as he firmly established his berth as the starter at the base of Sarri’s midfield.
While Valdifiori, too, was an impressive progressive passer, Jorginho demonstrated his additional value through a greater level of ball security (fewer misplaced passes and dispossessions), stronger defensive workrate, and the ability to carry the ball forward with greater speed.
Each tier represents 20% percentile ranking among other central midfielders in the league.
Meanwhile Allan, who had certainly shown a potent attacking punch from deep with a goal and an assist in the match, was key in supplying the defensive dirty work alongside Jorginho’s more creative presence in the middle. Given his more withdrawn and central position in the 4-3-3, The battling Brazilian had far less space to cover in defensive transitions to drop next to Jorginho compared to Insigne as the trequartista in the 4-3-1-2, providing much stronger cover for counterattacks and a more secure base for Sarri’s possession-based style of play.
Jose Callejon was then tasked with tracking back on the right as a more traditional winger, with Hamsik shifting wide to the left to provide cover for Insigne, who stayed narrow and high up the pitch as an inside forward to create Sarri’s preferred 4-4-2 defensive shape.
Napoli drew Carpi 0-0 in the next match, struggling to penetrate a the newly-promoted side which seemed content to hand over possession and sit deep with five defenders in a well-drilled low block, but the fans were already looking ahead; back-to-back matches against Juventus and AC Milan were looming with a Europa League contest in Poland against Legia Warsaw sandwiched in between.
Despite winning four straight Scudetti over 2012-2015, the first three under the tutelage of Antonio Conte and the fourth under his replacement Max Allegri, Juventus had rather stumbled out of the blocks in the 2015/16 season with just one win in five and only one clean sheet, perhaps suffering from the losses of stalwarts Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, and Arturo Vidal in the summer. Regardless, Juventus’ domestic dominance was undoubted and their recovery all but assured, and their matchup against Napoli was a chance for the Azzurri to test their mettle against the best side in Italy.
Displaying the same tendency to stick to a winning formula as he had with Empoli, Sarri started the same XI that had demolished Lazio and eked out a 2-1 win over the reigning champions, with an in-form Gonzalo Higuain assisting Insigne’s opener before scoring another fabulous solo goal. “The team has perhaps played better in other games,” Sarri told the press, “But we played with more personality tonight.”
The match was clear proof of Sarri’s emphasis on the defensive phase, despite being known primarily for his slick passing style in attack. While Napoli still out-possessed Juve with 54% of the ball, it was their lowest possession rating of the season, and they were forced to defend deep in the last half hour to protect the 2-1 lead. The shot count was relatively even, with Napoli 13 shots (5 on target) to Juventus’ 12 (3 on target).
Aside from a point blank header from Giorgio Chiellini inside the six-yard box worth an immense 0.44 xG, which was skewered wide on 50 minutes, Juventus was restricted to just 0.67 xG from their other 11 shots, over half of which were outside the box and a third of which were blocked by a resolute Napoli defense.
After a heavily rotated side eased past Warsaw 2-0 in the Europa League, Sarri took the same XI that started against Juventus to the San Siro to face a sputtering AC Milan. The Rossoneri had won three and lost three of their opening six matches and were coming off a 10th place finish in 2015, their worst in Serie A since 1998. Again, Napoli put on a strong attacking display, this time routing their opposition 4-0 thanks to an unplayable performance from Lorenzo Insigne.
The match was a beautiful example of Napoli’s threat down the left wing, with Hamsik drifting wide from his central midfield berth as a mezzala to feed Insigne in the left channel, who would in turn cut inside to pass or fire from distance, play in the overlap for the marauding fullback Faouzi Ghoulam, or look to combine with Gonzalo Higuain. Freed from defensive responsibilities and allowed to float on the left wing, Insigne’s combination play with the Argentinian hitman in particular was a joy to behold as he was central to all four of Napoli’s goals.
Hamsik finds Insigne who is able to cut in and attract the attention of five Rossoneri defenders, leaving Allan open to run in behind and open the scoring for Napoli.
Insigne is able to pick up the ball in a pocket of space due to Hamsik’s positioning wide left, creating confusion among Milan’s defenders; he is then able to cut inside and combine with Higuain to get in behind and score the second goal.
No tactical explanation necessary; pure class.
Insigne again picks up the ball in the channel; this time crowded out by three Milan defenders, he plays in the overlapping Ghoulam. The fullback whips in a cross for Insigne and Higuain to attack, and ultimately the ball is turned into the AC Milan goal by the defender Rodrigo Ely.
The wins over Lazio, Juventus and Milan announced the true arrival of Sarri’s Napoli. Though Napoli sat in just 7th position by the end of match week seven, only 3 points separated them from 3rd place Lazio, and the Neapolitan side boasted most goals scored thus far with 16.
“We still need to improve,” Sarri noted with furrowed brows after the demolition of Milan, adding that it would be “blasphemy to talk about the Scudetto” at this stage of the season. Clearly, a tough man to please.
Sarri’s men followed their impressive wins by dispatching surprise league leaders Fiorentina 2-1 at the Stadio San Paolo before going on to win four of their next five. Astonishingly, Napoli’s once-leaky defense kept clean sheets in all five matches as the team adjusted to Sarri’s high-pressure defensive style. Over those five matches, the side conceded a mere 28 shots for 1.54 xG, both 2nd lowest in the league behind only Fiorentina, and reduced their xG per shot conceded from 3rd worst to the 4th best.
Sarri showed remarkable consistency in his team selection over that time; aside from two starts for Vladimir Chiriches in the place of Kalidou Koulibaly and one for David Lopez in the place of Allan, Sarri maintained total faith in the XI that had so effectively beaten Lazio, Juventus and Milan in the early stages of the season. Greater rotation occurred in the Europa League, where Napoli continued to coast in the group stages, defeating Denmark’s Midtjylland 9-1 over their two matches and Club Brugge 1-0 in Belgium.
By the end of November, Napoli were on a run of twelve league matches unbeaten since their opening day loss to Sassuolo and went into the 14th match day in 2nd position, just two points behind their upcoming opponents and league leaders Inter Milan. Despite a lowly 8th-place finish in 2014/15, Inter had started the new season brightly in Roberto Mancini’s second stint at the club, winning nine of their opening 13 matches and keeping nine clean sheets, including four in a row ahead of their matchup with Napoli.
Inter’s stalwart back line was breached after just 65 seconds by Pipita Higuain, however, as he pounced on a loose ball to fire home in the 2nd minute before completing his brace just after the hour mark, leading Napoli to a 2-1 win which leapfrogged I Partenopei over their opponents to the top of the league table for the first time. Sarri again insisted upon caution, stressing with his usual hint of sarcasm, “There are another 72 points still to be won. With 31 so far we’re not even safe from relegation.”
The warnings against complacency did not get through to his players who stumbled to an error-strewn 3-2 loss to Bologna the following week to end a run of 18 matches unbeaten in all competitions and a bore 0-0 draw at Roma the week after. A 3-1 win over Atalanta five days before Christmas, however, marked a return to form for Sarri’s side, and Napoli carried its refreshed momentum into the start of the new year with a 2-1 over Torino before dismantling relegation candidates Frosinone 5-1.
The victory over Frosinone was significant for a number of reasons. The match took place on Maurizio Sarri’s 57th birthday, and Gonzalo Higuain scored yet another brace to take his league tally to 18 goals in 19 games, the second a phenomenal solo goal. Even with Dries Mertens and Ivan Strinic deputizing down the left for Insigne and Ghoulam, the match was also exemplary of a few key facets of Napoli’s style:
A creative focus down the left-hand side, measured by the most dangerous left-wing Expected Goals Assisted (xGA) numbers in the league:
The side’s high-pressure defensive approach centered around winning the ball up the field to stymie opposition attacks before they can begin, illustrated by a strong PPDA (passes per defensive action) and stingy xG conceded vs. league average:
Perhaps most importantly, due to losses at the expense of league leaders Inter and 2nd placed Fiorentina, Napoli returned to the top of the table and were crowned Campione d’Invierno, or “winter champions”, the unofficial title granted by the Italian media to the team at the top of the standings at the halfway point of the season.
Asked by reporters about the accomplishment after the match, Sarri observed with his usual deadpan demeanor, “When I signed, my only hope was to still be manager at this stage.”
“You know how much importance I give to the title of winter champions – none at all,” he continued before looking to ease the pressure on his Neapolitan charges: “I am talking about the team that has won the last four titles, I’ve always said that Juventus were the real favorites.”
Indeed, Juventus sat an ominous two points behind Napoli in 2nd place following a 2-1 win over Sampdoria which marked their ninth straight in Serie A, but the fact remained that every winter champion had gone on to lift the Scudetto since 2006.
Despite his cautionary rhetoric, Sarri did finally admit to some optimism. On the eve of the match, a reporter had asked Sarri if “Scudetto” was still a curse word, as the enigmatic manager had branded it earlier in the season. “Yes it is,” he replied solemnly. “But you know, I am a Tuscan, and where I come from we swear quite a bit.”
By: Neal Hasan / @_____neal_____
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Marco Canoniero / LightRocket