Tied 1-1 and up a player in a recent match against Sampdoria, the match commentator noted that Napoli had to prove they could win ugly matches. Leading Serie A with 42 goals at a clip of over two per game, Maurizio Sarri’s side proved they can out pass and outscore opponents in wide open matches. Yet they needed to gain the “ugly” points to truly push Juventus at the top of the table. On cue, Lorenzo Tonelli scored the match winner in the 95th minute on his league debut. It was a goal made out of unrelenting pressure and belief.
The nuances of Napoli are founded on simplicity. Sarri has built upon the same 4-3-3 formation since losing his first three matches as manager last season. The technical midfield three relied upon for possession and incisive speed on counter attacks includes some combination of Jorginho, Allan, Mirko Valdifiori, Amadou Diawara, Piotr Zielinski, and Marek Hamsik. The attacking three features Lorenzo Insigne cutting in from the left, Jose Callejon as the right sided winger, and whoever the in-form striker is of the moment - be it Gonzalo Higuain, Arkadiusz Milik, and currently, Dries Mertens.
The Higuain transfer last summer was a turning point for the club, presumably for the worse. Replacing a player who scored 36 goals in 35 domestic matches is impossible on its own. That was before Milik, his direct replacement, tore his ACL two months into the season after scoring four goals in seven matches. Yet with Sarri’s ability to develop players, the argument could be made that Napoli are more dangerous in reinvesting Higuain’s $100 some odd million transfer fee. The 29-year-old Mertens has been with the club since 2013 and played on the wing before moving into the Higuain role after Milik’s injury. He already scored as many goals this season in Serie A than the past two seasons combined. His form features back to back hat tricks.
So we continue to analyze who, or what is the most irreplaceable part of Sarri’s machine. Jorginho’s deep lying skills would be an obvious answer, yet centerback Kalidou Koulibaly also plays an essential role in possession when opposition mark Napoli’s midfield man to man. Hamsik’s 105 club goals and ability to move between the construction phase and into the attack creates instability for defenders. Insigne drifts into space to give wingers room to operate while posing a goal threat himself. Mertens stretches defensive lines with pace. And it goes on. Each position is carefully constructed to create the most incisive movements and space.
The best word to describe Napoli is verticality. Sarri’s style is uniquely suited to combat the modern press with quick, one touch passing out of defense. The description of “press resistance” applies to the midfield three of Jorginho, Allan, and Hamsik especially. Napoli’s midfield possess the technical ability, speed, and tightly formed triangles to quickly move past the initial pressure and break into space to create their own transition out of stopping an opponent’s transition.
Napoli are unique in applying this vertical, quick passing style when in possession - they are averaging close to 60% of the ball per match this season. Play begins with the underrated Pepe Reina, who was probably the best passing keeper in Europe at some point in his career. The preferred center back pairing of Koulibaly - the most improved player under the manager - and Raul Albiol play out of the back. Wingbacks Elseid Hysaj (signed the same summer as Sarri) and Faouzi Ghoulam use their speed and athleticism to stretch play vertically and stop opposition counterattacks. Again, each piece compliments, fits, and covers another in each phase of a match.
There are elements of juego de posicion with central overloads and perhaps the best use of the diagonal ball this side of Pep Guardiola. But whereas traditional positional play is meant to move defenders side to side to exploit on switches of play, Napoli are at their most exciting when using these ideas to counterattack. This is tiki-taka designed to exploit both gegenpressing and social media video engagements.
Napoli have always been a stylish club who seem to score a lot of goals even with a counter attacking style. That conundrum playing out on the field is what made them the hipster club of choice in 2012 under Walter Mazzarri. That team was also a counter attacking machine. Lead by Edinson Cavani, but that side was a traditional counterattack led by athletes and speed (Hamsik and Insigne are holdovers from those sides). But this Napoli side counter attack with shapes and patterns. In that sense, Sarri hasn’t invented anything new, but furthered the club DNA.
Last year, UEFA’s official site published an article asking “Who is new Napoli Coach Maurizio Sarri?” It was a fair question. After all, Napoli was Sarri’s 18th job in a 26-year career. He juggled a daytime banking job with managing amateur sides in the 90s. He spent the 2000s managing clubs in Serie D. Sarri was 55 years old the first time he managed in Serie A in 2014. That Empoli side had the lowest wage bill in Serie A and avoided relegation while averaging 51% possession per match. Managers develop their craft under a variety of circumstances.
The route paying dues in the lower leagues is similar to the travels of Quique Setien at Las Palmas and Tite with Brazil. Like those two managers, Sarri’s sides exhibit common traits along the way: there’s a narrow three player midfield, a focus on movement from the front free, and the vertical passing. There’s the mythic 33 set piece plays developed over two decades. His are magnified with Napoli’s budget.
While he brought Valdifiori and Tonelli along from Empoli, the majority of his work can be seen in improving the core of the Napoli side. There’s Mertens going from a reliable winger to most on-form striker in Europe. Hamsik, Insigne, and Callejon each expanded their game - particularly their off ball movement and positioning to create space for teammates. Koulibaly was rumored for Chelsea last summer. This is by design as Sarri believes that young players grow from their mistakes. And now at Napoli, he may reap the rewards as well.
Napoli are seven points behind Juventus, who have a game in hand. The Old Lady will probably win their sixth straight Serie A. But there is reason for excitement when looking further down the table. Sarri and second place Luciano Spalletti’s Roma side each feature athleticism and speed in attack. Milan are undergoing their youth movement. With that said, Napoli have maintained their identity from Mazzarri to Rafa Benitez to Sarri. Of course, the end goal is to catch Juventus. But to deem anything less a failure is to miss what may be the next evolution of soccer.