Last season, Maurizio Sarri took the city of Naples for another roller coaster ride as he lead Napoli within touching distance of ending the Old Lady’s reign over the Scudetto, yet in the end, Juventus walked out triumphant once again.
Napoli collected 91 points, the exact sum the Bianconeri needed to win the two prior titles; this point tally would have been enough for them to win the title in three of Juventus’ last seven titles. But Scudetti are won on the pitch, not on spreadsheets, and once again, Juve had enough fuel in the tank to defeat their pesky rivals.
With Sarri growing closer to becoming Chelsea’s new manager, and with Napoli unwilling to wait for Chelsea and Antonio Conte to resolve contract talks, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis decided to make a change, and it took the world by storm as he convinced arguably the biggest coaching name to ever walk through San Paolo’s halls, Carlo Ancelotti, to become Napoli’s new manager.
This deal left Napoli fans with mixed feelings as they had to wave goodbye to a tactical guru, while welcoming a more decorated, new leader, who has engineered beautiful football and instituted European dominance.
“It was hard to see Sarri walk away,” said Eric Passariello, a Napoli fan from Texas. “When I first heard Ancelotti was interested in coaching Napoli I thought, wow! Napoli are elevating to a new level.”
“Sarri made Napoli relevant in Italy, Ancelotti will make Napoli relevant in Europe,” continued Passariello. “However, Ancelotti wouldn’t have signed for Napoli if it wasn’t for Sarri’s success.”
Following the Champions League draw, the Neapolitans were not that optimistic as they were forced to take part of the toughest group in the competition, up against with Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade.
However, the 59-year-old coach made the necessary tweaks to evolve Sarri’s helter-skelter, entertaining side into an unpredictable tactical monster.
Not only did Napoli stand toe to toe with Liverpool, they didn’t allow them a single shot on target, and the club’s most beloved figure, Lorenzo Insigne, tapped home a crucial goal in the dying minutes to send the San Paolo fans into a frenzy.
“Ancelotti gave them a whole new mentality,” said Maxi Angelo, a Liverpool correspondent for Anfield Express. “I was very impressed with how Napoli played Liverpool. They had a perfect balance in their team. They closed Liverpool down immediately and disarmed them in the counters, which is their greatest threat. At the same time they dictated the game, held possession and played offensive-minded football. That’s the first time I’ve seen any team do that to Liverpool since the start of the 2017/18 season.”
“Ancelotti is proving time and time again why he’s one of the best of his generation, an established winner.”
The boys in blue didn’t stop there. In their following trip to Parc des Princes, Ancelotti’s relentless troops held the lead until Ángel Di María unleashed an equalizer in stoppage time.
A couple of months prior, no one would have expected the French champions to just barely clinch a point on home ground against the Partenopei. Just last season, Paris Saint Germain topped their group of Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, and Celtic, while Napoli were sent packing from the group stage by Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk. Their loss on the final match day to Feyenoord only rubbed salt in the wounds. Nonetheless, Ancelotti has turned what were once underachievers in Europe into overachievers.
“Carlo is a manager who is excellent at installing a winners’ mentality in the teams he manages,” added Angelo. “Sarri’s approach wasn’t bad or anything, but Ancelotti’s is on another level. I think Ancelotti has made a healthier disposition of the team. I believe he adds an experience of top flight football that Sarri is working well to attain, but still doesn’t have.”
The two managers have totally different approaches while in charge. The former banker stuck with the same lineup throughout the season, as nine Napoli players started 32 games or more in Serie A last campaign.
On the other hand, Ancelotti has coached the club in 15 games, where he has used 14 different lineups, granting every healthy member of his squad the feeling that they are valuable, boosting their confidence as they take part in the team’s victories.
Kalidou Koulibaly is the only man to start every game this campaign; the indispensable, world class central defender has gone up another level under Ancelotti, key in Napoli taming the likes of Neymar, Mohamed Salah, Kylian Mbappé and more over the Champions League campaign.
In less than three months, Arkadiusz Milik has featured for 554 minutes in the league, more than any of the previous two campaigns, while Marko Rog made three starts, more than he did in his last two years in Italy combined.
After beginning the first few weeks of the season aiming to replicate his predecessor’s 4-3-3, Ancelotti made the switch to his preferred 4-4-2 on September 23 against Torino, which the new coach regards as the best defensive formation according to his autobiography. José Callejón and Simone Verdi started as wide midfielders, Marko Rog started in the midfield pivot, and homegrown central defender Sebastiano Luperto made his starting debut at left back. Napoli would win 3-1, and while Ancelotti has returned to the 4-3-3 on occasion, the 4-4-2 is clearly the first-choice formation.
As Jorginho left with Sarri to London, Ancelotti needed to change things up to replace the metronome, and he made two major changes. He deployed captain Marek Hamšík in a more defensive role next to Allan, who after another incredible few months, has finally earned his first call-up to Brazil’s national team.
Insigne switched to a center forward role next to Dries Mertens. The two act as unorthodox strikers, exchanging positions and frequently dropping wide to make pinpoint crosses for Fabián Ruiz, who acts as an inverted winger and Callejón, who is the only attacking player who sticks to his position on the right flank.
In the Champions League, Ancelotti’s formation shifts between 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. In the past three CL matches, Nikola Maksimović has replaced Elseid Hysaj as a right back in the line-up, often switching as a third center back to give the coach flexibility and to allow Mário Rui to act as a wide man opposite to Callejón, while Ruiz or Piotr Zieliński returns to their original position in the center of the park.
“Sarri is an ideologue under whom everything and everyone has to adjust to the system; Ancelotti is much more pragmatic and result oriented,” said Nima Tavalley, owner of SempreInter.com. “In order for Sarri’s system to work, he needs certain types of players, and if he doesn’t get them the system doesn’t work. Ancelotti on the other hand creates a system based on the players he has at his disposal and adjusts that system to get the best out of each player. This is why Sarri never rotated any players at Napoli, whilst Ancelotti has successfully rotated his troops everywhere he has been.”
“I don’t think anyone can stop Juventus, who will storm to their eighth straight Serie A title as they are built to win now. Inter and Napoli will fight it out for second and I think Napoli will edge Inter out ever so slightly. The way I see it, Napoli aren’t intended to win the Scudetto this season, but the objective is to win next season when Ancelotti will have been there for a year, and they will have two more windows where they can strengthen the squad.”
Over the last two decades, Ancelotti has won at least one title with every team he has coached, he has been at the helm of clubs all around the top five leagues, and he has managed to triumph with the league trophy in four different nations.
The only country he failed to win the league at was Spain, and instead of granting Real Madrid the La Liga title, he led them to their first Champions League trophy in 12 years.
Napoli fans have been longing for a savior who could lead them to a major trophy for years now, and with the three-time Champions League winner on the sidelines, they can dream. “In Serie A, Juventus have a decent lead but it isn’t completely out of reach for a Scudetto,” said Passariello.
“In the Champions League we all saw what Napoli did to Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain, and with Faouzi Ghoulam, Alex Meret and Amin Younes all getting healthy and back to form, Napoli have what it takes to do some serious damage in the Champions League.”
Last season they were sent packing from Europe’s elite competition by Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk. Now, they’re topping the table ahead of last season’s runners-up and the French champions.
By: Ramez Nathan