New Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri did not go down the usual route of making it to the top level of football management by being an ex-footballer. A bank manager until 2002, the 56-year-old brought his Empoli side to Serie A last season, making his managing debut in Italy’s top-flight.
Sticking by his 4-3-1-2, which demands the use of a trequartista to bring life to the attack, Empoli played some of the best football in Serie A. And with many predicting relegation, the Tuscan side finished in 15th.
With Rafael Benitez choosing not to stay in Naples, president Aurelio De Laurentiis was in need of a coach. To much surprise across the peninsula, Sarri was brought in 11 days after the Serie A campaign ended and he implemented a 4-3-1-2 right off the bat for the Neapolitans.
Given the number of wide attackers in Napoli’s squad, this formation was quickly met with criticism after the first string of disappointing league play results.
For one, Jose Callejon’s new role was that of a support striker. Not in a position to make his characteristically effective darting runs behind the defence, the former Real Madrid man looked like a fish out of water.
More importantly, given the 4-3-1-2 setup, the look of the squad was extremely narrow. While the Partenopei had no problem finding the net, with Lorenzo Insigne dazzling as a trequartista, Napoli allowed heaps of space on both flanks for opponents to come barreling down, which resulted in six goals being conceded in the first three matches.
With just two points picked up after three rounds of play, fans were at wits’ end with the provincial manager. Even club legend Diego Maradona spoke out about the situation, predicting that Napoli wouldn’t win anything under the former Empoli tactician.
While President Aurelio De Laurentiis publicly backed the new coach, rumours began to spread that Sarri’s last game to prove his worth would be in round seven against Juventus. Knowing a change was needed, Sarri analysed the situation and called upon a 4-3-3 for his men.
One of Benitez’s criticisms during his time in Naples was his stubbornness to be flexible with tactical setups, as his 4-2-3-1 came to be predictable for opponents to line up against. However, Sarri being as tactically astute as they come, allowed the 4-3-3 to be tested in the club’s opening Europa League clash against Club Brugge.
Simply put, the new formation has improved results.
Napoli hit three goals in 25 minutes and finished the match with a 5-0 scoreline. While the strength of the club’s deadly attack saw no changes, the defence looked much more organized given the shape of the formation.
Although some sneered at the level of the opponent at the San Paolo last Thursday night, a real test would come three days later against Lazio. The Aquile defeated the Partenopei on the final matchday of last season to earn a Champions League playoff spot. With a handful Lazio regulars missing through injury, Napoli did not hold back.
Astonishingly, another 5-0 outcome followed.
In one of the best revenge matches one will ever witness, Napoli’s 4-3-3 provided the right balance both offensively and defensively.
Full-backs Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam snuffed out attacks and regularly got upfield to play a key role to the side’s attacking phase.
As a regista in midfield, Jorginho set the rhythm of the match with each delicate pass. In fact, he managed to complete 213 out of 222 passes between the past two 5-0 results. The width of the defence and midfield helped the club keep possession and better line up against counterattacks.
Lorenzo Insigne commanded down the left wing and brought fans’ to the edge of their seats when he received the ball.
While the Partenopei did hit a recent snag against Capri by tying 0-0, they did manage to keep a clean sheet, which was their third in a row. A rare feat for the club last season, Sarri’s change in system has implemented better defensive coverage.
The chances were there for Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini to snag a goal, but the pair couldn’t convert.
All in all, the side look much more balanced with a 4-3-3. The Neapolitans welcome Juventus this weekend which should ignite an electric atmosphere at the San Paolo.
With a 4-3-3 approach for Napoli, Sarri has the ability of leading the club to winning ways once again.
About the author – Matthew Amalfitano
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.